Color, 1980, 118 mins. 33 secs. / 103 mins. 47 secs.
Directed by John Irvin
Christoher Walken, Tom Berenger, Colin Blakely, Hugh Millais, Paul Freeman, Jean-François Stévenin, JoBeth Williams, Ed O'Neill
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD), Twilight Time (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Eureka (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
After suddenly becoming a very in-demand name following his Oscar win in 1979 for The Deer Hunter, Christopher Walken became a fascinating leading man for about a decade with a string of projects ranging from excellent (The Dead Zone) to troubled (Brainstorm) to the downright bizarre (Communion). Falling into that first category is The Dogs of War, made in the aftermath of Walken's infamous follow-up film for Cimino, Heaven's Gate. The project had been in development with United Artists for years, dating back to the publication of the source novel by Frederick Forsyth (The Day of the Jackal), with Cimino himself involved at one point. With its chilling realism derived from Forsyth's own experiences going undercover among arms dealers and mercenaries, the Belize-shot film was a natural feature debut for onetime combat documentarian John Irvin, who had proven his narrative skills with TV's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and would go on to direct Ghost Story, Hamburger Hill, and Raw Deal.
Mercenary Jamie Shannon (Walker) specializes in the dangerous jobs with his team including no-nonsense Drew (Berenger) and Derek (Raiders of the Lost Ark's Freeman). Their latest offer comes from wealthy industrialist Endean (Millais), who's looking for ways to depose the current dictatorial government of fictional African country Zangaro so he can access a valuable, initially mysterious resource discovered within its borders. During a reconnaissance mission to find out whether an internal coup is feasible, Shannon finds an ally in documentarian North (Blakely) and ends up being severely tortured for several days by the current regime. Endean offers to let Shannon stage a coup of his own with his cohorts currently based out of South America, and though he grows to increasingly resent his employer, Shannon decides to build his own team to go in with as much artillery as possible.
A combination of Hollywood and U.K. talent (the latter including executive producer Norman Jewison, another past potential director), The Dogs of War gets a lot of mileage out of its attention to detail with the process of recruiting, arming, and staging its central mission, with Walken's own code of honor remaining fairly ambiguous until the final few minutes. Behind the camera it also benefits from legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff (Black Narcissus), as well as an effective and very underrated score by Geoffrey Burgon (who also scored Irvin's Turtle Diary and Robin Hood). Everyone in front of the camera seems fully committed, even if some of the roles were famously chopped down during post-production; a very young, pre-Married with Children Ed O'Neill stands out among the main team, and keep an eye out for a very young Jim Broadbent, too. Though it didn't really set the box office on fire when it opened in early 1981 (after premiering at the end of '80), jockeying for space along fairly soft competition like Sphinx and The Incredible Shrinking Woman. However, it built up a steady cult following through frequent cable TV play with frequent late night HBO airings making it a fond favorite about combat movie fans. It's also been a steady presence of home video for ages ever since its big box VHS from MGM/UA, all reflecting the standard 102-minute U.S. release cut.
An interesting wrinkle came with little fanfare in 2001 when the film hit U.S. DVD for the first time from MGM, featuring the greatly extended U.K. version with several significant scenes adding 15 minutes to the running time. Chief among these is the restoration of JoBeth Williams' character (excised almost entirely from the American cut) as Shannon's ex-wife, who plays a pivotal role in the course of action he chooses during the last act of the film. The additions mainly consist of character development and a more logical progression of how the team navigates local authorities and other unseemly elements in the area, making for a richer and more satisfying viewing experience for an already solid film. In 2014, Twilight Time brought the film to Blu-ray for the first time with both cuts included, from a nice master initially seen on the MGM HD channel. That disc features an isolated score track, the trailer, and liner notes by Julie Kirgo. A similar package came from Eureka in the U.K. in 2019, featuring the two cuts and the trailer.
In 2021, Scorpion Releasing gave the film a greatly expanded revisit on Blu-ray in the U.S. featuring a new 2K scan of the interpositive for both cuts. The older transfer looked quite good, but this one (featuring the usual reversible cover options) does improve quite visibly with more image info in the frame and richer color timing, which is especially welcome in the dark and explosion-heavy final stretch which now looks more impressive. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 track nicely replicates the usual Dolby Stereo mix we've had all along, with optional English SDH subtitles provided. A slate of new video interviews kicks off with Freeman (12m49s) chatting about his desire to make sure the film didn't glorify war and recalling a few moments from the production, notably the measures taken from a long nocturnal swimming scene and his firing of a weapon previously operated on film only by John Wayne. Then Maggie Scott (9m26s) recalls the supportive nature of the shoot very early in her career, the one scene that required take after take, and performing her big entrance scene. After that, co-writer George Malko (10m44s) notes his satisfaction with the ending as it came about for the final version of the film and his thoughts on working with Irvin as well as his impressions of the cast. Finally you get an assemblage of interviews (21m13s) with first assistant director Anthony Waye, production designer Peter Mullins, and costume designer Emma Porteous talking about the arduous process of shooting in Belize, renovating an old hospital as a major location, staging the action scenes, and putting together authentic uniforms early in the pre-production process. Two trailers and a dupey TV spot are also included along with bonus ones for The Delta Force, P.O.W. The Escape, and Who'll Stop the Rain.
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray)
Twilight Time (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on September 6, 2021.