The Dogs Of War is a slick effort in a genre that seems to be gradually slipping away from the public's consciousness. The sort of genre in which Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum novels usually provide the initial basis. These novels contain intricate plots involving war, assassination and heavy political intrigue that are presented without ever seeming convoluted. Nowadays, the plot seems to have been treated less importantly and superseded by action sequences and special effects.
The Dogs Of War was directed by Brit John Irvin (Ghost Story, Hamburger Hill), stars Christopher Walken (fresh from his Oscar winning performance in The Deer Hunter) and Tom Berenger and was released in 1980. There are two versions in circulation. The longer version featured more background story on the film's protagonist and contained approximately fifteen minutes more than the version released both on Region 1 and here on Region 2.
Plot-wise, the film is a good, old-fashioned three-act set-up. Mercenary for hire John Shannon (Walken) is assigned to a mission of reconnaissance - to evaluate the possibility of deposing a corrupt African dictatorship from power. Using a smokescreen as a bird-photographer, Shannon gathers all of the necessary information as well as suffering terrible torture from African guards suspicious of his purpose. After his deportation, Shannon assembles a crack-team of elite mercenaries to return to the African country and remove the military dictatorship entirely. However, whilst accomplishing this dangerous mission, Shannon starts to have severe doubts about the ethical nature of his task.
As this is the shorter version, The Dogs Of War has a better pace to it, and removes all of the unnecessary background plotting that caused the film to be initially criticised in some quarters. At one hundred minutes, the film is frenetically paced and yet is mostly quiet on the action scale. The high level of tension throughout, combined with Geoffrey Burgon's fine music score, helps give the film a tremendous sense of dangerous excitement. The directing by Irvin is deliberately and yet effectively mechanical - he doesn't pander to indulgent touches and he rarely lets an element of the production dominate the plot. In terms of violence, The Dogs Of War has plenty, but it never panders to the gratuitous, and no more blood is shown than necessary. Irvin's direction is complimented heavily by the excellent photography by the renowned Jack Cardiff, who gives the film a fine visual aesthetic quality despite many of the film's scenes taken place in darkness.
Cast wise, Christopher Walken shows why he is one of the most popular actors of all time, with a performance that coolly balances charisma with an icy edge that could snap at any time. Tom Berenger gives able support as Drew, the macho hothead who lacks Shannon's patience but still manages to have some charisma. In this shorter film version, JoBeth Williams is primarily wasted, and perhaps should have been cut altogether. Even so, the little portion of the scene that remains suggests that Shannon will always place his work before his own life. The extended version also explained that Williams' character was actually Shannon's ex-wife.
Along with other Forsyth adaptations such as The Day Of The Jackel and The Fourth Protocol, The Dogs Of War is as unflinching as it is gripping. It's a decent actioner the good old-fashioned way, in which good directing, acting and plotting ensure its quality as opposed to the usual style over substance cinematic tricks.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, the film's transfer is mostly very good, with fine image detail and acceptable colouring. A few digital artefacts crop up occasionally, and some of the darker sequences exhibit some grain, but on the whole this beats the grainy old pan-and-scan VHS copies that many fans will own.
Presented in Dolby 2.0 Surround, the soundtrack is mostly mono in terms of dialogue but does contain a few effective surround elements when it comes to the action scenes. The sound track is extremely audible and abundant in clarity, and considering this DVD package is a bare-bones release at least the film itself scores points on all fronts.
Menu: A static yet colourful menu consisting of a few action-orientated shots from the film.
Packaging: The usual MGM amaray budget range release, with colourful front cover and chapter listings printed on the reverse of the inlay card, visible via the transparent amaray casing.
Original Theatrical Trailer: The trailer is the only extra provided, and is lengthy at two and a half minutes. Even so, it manages to summarise the essence of the plot.
The Dogs Of War is an exciting adaptation of a good Forsyth novel, that is brilliant escapist entertainment in the traditional sense. The picture and sound quality are very good, even if the disc is another MGM bare-bones release. Fans of the film shouldn't worry, as the disc's lack of extras ensures its relatively cheap RRP.