A Movie A Day #146: The Dogs of War (1981, directed by John Irvin)


Jamie Shannon (Christopher Walken) is a professional mercenary who is hired, by a British businessman, to overthrow the government of Zangaro.  Though Zangaro is currently ruled by a ruthless dictator, Shannon’s employers want to replace him with someone even worse, all so they can get their hands on the country’s platinum mines.  After Shannon is captured and tortured by the government, he wants nothing else to do with Zangaro.  Instead, he wants to return to New York and propose to his ex-wife (JoBeth Williams).  But, when she turns down his proposal, Shannon and his mercenary army return to Zangaro.

Before winning an Oscar for The Deer Hunter and becoming one of our most popular character actors, Christopher Walken was a finalist for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars.  If not for George Lucas’s decision to hire Harrison Ford to read lines for the actors at the auditions, Christopher Walken’s career could have developed far differently.  The Dogs of War, which was Walken’s first big film after the high of The Deer Hunter and the low of Heaven’s Gate, features Walken playing a character who has much in common with George Lucas’s original conception of Han Solo, an amoral mercenary who will work for anyone who pays him.  Walken is almost too good as Jamie, playing the part as being so aloof and ruthless that it is sometimes hard to feel any sympathy for him at all.  If he had taken that approach to playing Han Solo, audiences would have really been shocked when Han returned to attack the Death Star.  They would probably be worried that he had returned because the Empire offered him a thousand credits to kill Luke.

The Dogs of War has an intriguing premise but it’s a very slow movie that gets caught up in all the minutia that goes into staging a coup.  It’s exciting when Walken and his mercenaries finally attack the dictator’s compound but it takes forever to get there.  The book, by Frederick Forsyth, is a well-written page turner but the film adaptation largely falls flat.

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