Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Dogs of War

The Dogs of War (1980)
Dir John Irvin
Written by Gary DeVore, George Malko
Starring Christopher Walken, Tom Berenger
You know how most of these 70's and early 80's painted posters have an awesome image which never even remotely happens in the movie? Not this one. 

What we got here is an interesting oddity from 1980, a kind of weird blend of mercenary action movie and war drama, but coming from a perspective which makes it a bit unique. It has all the trappings of any number of genre mercenary movies: a team of cynical, hardass character actors, a fictional African country with a sunglass-favoring dictator, a whole bunch of guns, and enough explosions to easily send a commercial tanker ship carrying nothing but cinder blocks to the moon and back a few dozen times. But unlike the sort of movie you’re immediately imagining, this one scales back on the giant muscles and outrageous stunts in favor of a focus on the planning and execution of a mercenary’s work. There’s a few big explosions at the very beginning, and then no action whatsoever until the film’s finale. In between, we get to watch as veteran merc and victim of a double girl name Jamie Shannon (Christopher Walken) goes on a recon mission, considers leaving the trade, gets contracts, and puts together a crack team to smuggle weapons, infiltrate enemy territory, and then (finally) blow up absolutely every goddamn thing in sight. Once the guns finally do come out we get a pretty spectacular light show, but the emphasis of the runtime is on the non-shooting parts of the mercenary’s life, from the loneliness of the downtime to the haggling over gun prices to the clever methods of skirting customs officers. It’s almost a mercenary procedural!

Signing 8x12 glossies for fans.

Part of the oddness of the film comes from the unusual casting. This is the sort of movie you’d expect to star Tom Berenger or somebody (which is good, because he’s in here too) but instead the lead is Walken, fresh off THE DEER HUNTER and HEAVEN’S GATE and not looking at all like your typical Hollywood image of a mercenary tough guy. He’s thin --almost emaciated-- and with his pale skin, red lips and blue eyes casts a decidedly feminine image (it also looks like he’s wearing enough makeup to qualify for a side gig as a geisha, not sure if that’s part of the character or what). We see that he’s pretty hardcore from the movie’s opening where he drives a jeep through an exploding airfield and hijacks an airplane, but the character skews realistic rather than towards the usual exaggerated ubermench trope; Walken’s Shannon is well-prepared and well-trained, but three guys attacking him at once quickly reduce him to the fetal position. He never says one-liners or looks like he’s enjoying himself very much, and in fact by the movie’s end it’s pretty obvious (without being overtly stated) that this line of work has not been good for his psyche.

Likewise, his teammates are a long way from Jesse Ventura and Carl Weathers; they’re mostly dumpy middle-aged guys, their scalps fighting a stalemate battle between greying and receding hairlines. One looks kind of like Denholm Elliott, another sort of like a nerdy Michael Ironside, a third looks like Ed O’Neill because it is him. Interestingly, you got Tom Berenger in there too, playing exactly the kind of macho tough guy you would expect Tom Berenger to play in a merc movie like this. But he’s a minor character and seems like the odd one here, maybe a guy who has watched too many of these movies himself and has a warped idea of how he should be reacting. Nobody else seems very amused by his cowboy antics, but they just seem to accept that this is how he rolls. Even though it’s the same character that is common to more outlandish versions of this same story, the context makes him seem kind of believable here, sort of a nod to real life macho assholes who might do this sort of thing for kicks. In this line of work, it’s actually realistic to have a few larger-than-life, exaggerated personalities. Just don’t expect things to work out for them as neatly as they do in the movies.

Riding dirty.

There’s an odd instinct toward realism here, which sits maybe a bit uncomfortably with the movie’s premise but also makes it kind of unique. Turns out director John Irvin might just have a leg up in the realism department over most directors, having been a cameraman in combats zones ranging from Vietnam to Algeria during the 60s. That probably explain a lot of the unusual structure of the movie and it’s interest in the minutiae of the operation, particularly since Irvin got in touch with some of his old mercenary contacts from that era to discuss the film. Moreover, writer Frederick Forsyth (author of the novel the film is based on) actually went undercover and posed as a venture capitalist attempting to finance a coup in Equatorial Guinea, allowing him to meet various mercenaries and underworld figures and ask them how this kind of thing could be done (a few years later, someone actually tried it for real). So as crazy as it sounds, I suspect this movie is not as far from reality as we might like to imagine. There are real guys out there who are probably completely capable of pulling something like this off. What’s the ratio of fact to fantasy? Well, Irvin would go on to direct HAMBURGER HILL (which an ex-Vietnam vet with a fake leg and only one eye would once tell me was the most realistic movie ever made about the Vietnam war) and the BBC TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY with Alec Guinness, another model of subtlety and realism. Of course, he also made Schwarzenneger’s RAW DEAL so there’s that side of him too.

One obvious fantasy which remains is the uncomfortable neocolonialist subtext. The U.S. action film industry was using this period to go back and win the Vietnam war (RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, THE GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK) but Irvin, an Englishman, has a different cultural scab to pick at, so what we got here is a bunch of Europeans getting to go back and re-fight the colonial wars of independence. The new democratically elected dictator of the fictional African “republic of Zangaro” is specifically juxtaposed against the more moderate, losing candidate (a nice guy who winds up in jail for his efforts) who we’re told suggestively “wanted to maintain ties with the mother country.” A number of characters suggest, mostly subtly, that the people of Zangaro were not ready for democracy yet, and that Europe needs to step in and set things right. That sentiment might have been forgivable in the less enlightened time of AFRICA ADDIO (1966), but it’s a little less so in fucking 1980.

I guess this big grenade launcher type gun was a selling point for this movie, but I'm honestly more in love with Walken's original Grumpy Cat face.

Fortunately, the film only pushes this logic so far; it’s clear that the Europeans pushing for the coup are rapacious capitalists who are only interested in securing the mining rights from the new government, so at least they’re not pretending to be heroes. Still, it’s a pretty uncomfortable fantasy to set up a scenario where the white heroes have to re-conquer a former colony in order to secure justice. It doesn’t really help much that virtually every African we meet in the film is openly villainous, and the ones who aren’t are treated with open scorn over the their collaboration with the dictatorship.* Interestingly, though, race doesn’t seem to factor into it as much as Europe’s sensitivity to being told it isn’t needed.** The Europeans even get a fun comeuppance when they take on a troupe of African Mercenaries, who Berenger scoffs are “bush league,” but who quickly shut him up with a demonstration of their skill. Walken even gets an African potential love interest, who the film treats as intelligent and glamorous. So it’s not necessarily about black and white, it’s just about the abiding notion that everyone should stop worrying and admit that they love Europe. It’s a weird kind of subtext, I don’t think I know any other movie with one like it.

So, in some ways it’s a bit ungainly and morally suspect (although perhaps not any more so than your average mercenary action movie). But still gotta give this one credit for trying something a little different. And hey, you can’t get too mad at a movie that has the good instincts to spend it’s first 10 seconds doing this:

Short of adding the implied exclamation point, I don’t know what else they could do to announce their intention of badassery. Except maybe cast future Oscar winner Jim Broadbent as a non-speaking extra. Sorry Jim, no time for your shenanigans here. Instead, we got an simple, straightforward focus on watching a bunch of hard, amoral pros do what they do best. No time for feelings; If you’re gonna cry, cry havoc! That’s how these dogs do it. Less bark, more bite.***   

*I suppose there’s another way to read this, especially since Walken is an American: Africans= Europeans, dictator= Hitler, Mercs = Americans.

** By the way, Ghanaian actor and future STAR WARS EPISODE I THE PHANTOM MENACE side player Hugh Quarshie is an unnamed extra in this. His IMDB page says he refuses to play Othello because he finds it racist, so the fact that he appears in this must mean he thinks it’s at least less racist than Othello. And I guess he’s got no beef with Shakespeare quotes, either.   

*** In fairness, I should admit that there is a brief section near the middle which involves Walken and his ex-wife, a weird performance by JoBeth Williams. They make a big deal about her crippled father, who apparently forced her to divorce Walken's character so she could care for him. Wha? That's not a thing, is it? Not sure what they were going for with this (except maybe to emphasize Walken's increasingly precarious psychological state?) but fortunately Walken fucks her, GTFO's, and then she's never mentioned again.

1 comment:

  1. With this and MCBAIN, Walken has helped overthrow 2 military dictatorships. Not a bad track record.