Christopher Walken is the cowbell. He’s the irresistible celebrity impression. Maybe he appears in a comedy as a parody of himself. It’s as if he’s trying to make audiences forget that he’s a tremendous actor, forged in the renewal of American cinema in the 1970s. He won an Oscar for his performance in 1978’s The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino’s Vietnam War drama. The film’s success fast-tracked production of the similarly themed The Dogs of War, with Walken starring and Cimino slated to direct. The hard-edged thriller follows a group of mercenaries sent to assassinate the dictator of a foreign country, and this actually sounds like a stock military thriller. In one scene, Walken’s character Jamie Shannon is even described as “expendable.” Sylvester Stallone’s 2010 movie The Expendables would almost serve as a remake but for key differences in the story, as well as the level of action.
Christopher Walken’s film opens in the midst of a battle scene, but it’s the principal characters fleeing from a combat zone and threatening their way onto the last plane out of Central America. Directed by John Irvin, The Dogs of War doesn’t showcase heroic spectacle but instead reflects the era in which it was produced. Unfortunately, its approach to American interventionism is timeless. It’s a grim, anonymous job, and this is communicated first by Walken’s performance.
Jamie Shannon returns home from the war zone to a crummy apartment where a couple can be heard through the walls arguing about Watergate and cockroaches skitter into view to be squashed. Speaking rarely and never to himself, all there is to learn about Shannon initially comes from his environment. He keeps a gun in every drawer – and his fridge – and a photo of himself and a woman which he reacts to wistfully. Later, a kid on the street asks him if he has any money, and his reply is, “What’s it to you?” One might imagine this delivery spoken with Walken’s charm, but it comes out irritably. “You can always be a beggar when you grow up,” he tells the kid after making him work for his change. By the time Shannon is tasked with the mission, he’s mostly an enigma, and this doesn’t change in that mission’s early phases. He’s sent to do recon in the fictional West African country Zangaro, where he encounters a parade of guest characters along a spectrum of hostility, from an easily bribed border agent to a Christian priest. Nobody elicits a particular response from our ostensible lead.
‘The Dogs of War’ Is a Darker, Thoughtful Version of ‘The Expendables’
As Endean (Hugh Millais) explains during the mission brief, the recently independent nation Zangaro is under the brutal rule of President Kimba, and this won’t do. He makes no overtures to humanitarianism, and Shannon requires none. Endean represents businessmen with interests in Zangaro’s natural resources, and they don’t want to venture into a partnership with a “madman.” The recon he requests of Shannon will determine if there’s already a coup d’etat brewing. Deducing that Kimba’s rule is absolute, with opposition either jailed or dead, Shannon is tasked with returning to Zangaro with a small army. In The Expendables, this same setup is framed as a fight against good versus evil. Credit where it’s due; in Stallone’s film, the foreign dictator with overthrow in his future is backed by the CIA. But what draws the titular heroes to the mission is the dictator’s violence against his people, especially the torture of a female love interest.
Shannon doesn’t really get to know the Zangaro people. He makes one “friend,” an English filmmaker (Colin Blakely) attempting to document the atrocities, and only endangers the potential love interest Gabrielle (Maggie Scott), by snapping a photo of her in front of Kimba’s garrison. He actually reconnects with the woman from the photo and asks to leave with her, but she refuses. He agrees to the mission because he has nothing else. It’s only money; a true mercenary. Of course, this is maybe the best-case scenario, as one of his team members, Drew (Tom Berenger), is excited by warfare. He spends the final raid on the garrison hooting and hollering. Shannon, by contrast, is scarily silent. The face-off with his theoretical nemesis passes with nary a one-liner. The villain is simply gunned down, and it isn’t clear he even recognized his killer. The action climax has almost no music and very little dialogue. Despite the subject matter, it isn’t really an action movie at all.
In ‘The Dogs of War,’ Mercenaries Are Assassins, Not Heroes
The Dogs of War is based on a 1974 novel by Frederick Forsyth, author of The Day of the Jackal. Like that adaptation, this film is interested in the logistics of an operation. How do guns leave one country and enter another? The first half of the movie is entirely Shannon’s recon mission, and the second half is mostly taken up by business deals in restaurants, offices, hotels, and warehouses if merchandise is on hand. Missing is the urgency of Jackal, but this might be because we’re effectively following the Jackal character as our sole protagonist. Shannon is just as meticulous and deadly but doesn’t put on a front. The Jackal was tasked with assassinating French president Charles de Gaulle, and while President Kimba is depicted as a murderous bastard, however indirectly (he only appears on-screen briefly), The Dogs of War nevertheless appreciates the immorality of shaping another country’s destiny.
Action movies like The Expendables, and its inspirations like Commando and the Rambo
sequels treat foreign countries like playgrounds. They’re full of faceless natives indistinguishable from the embedded enemy, save for a token sympathetic individual or two. The hero’s motive might be apolitical, like the rescue of a loved one, but their very presence isn’t characterized as a trespass, it’s necessary. Shannon is a stranger in a strange land, unknown to the viewer and deeply disturbed. Reencountering Gabrielle after storming the garrison, he stares at her and smiles like an unmasked Ghostface. However, The Dogs of War doesn’t fully commit, giving Shannon a good turn in his betrayal of Endean and the installation of a more moderate man as president, a kindly physician. After two hours of pure ’70s cynicism, is this a happy ending?
It would seem to be contradictory if the message of Dogs of War is that imperial intervention (in this case, both American and British) is a bad thing but the resolution is “well, choose the right guy.” Shannon leaves Zangaro in better hands, but he and the survivors of his team drive off in silence. One of them is dead, and they’re surrounded by death and destruction. It didn’t have to happen like this. In a review for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael draws a parallel between President Kimba and the real-world figure Idi Amin, dictator of Uganda from 1971 to 1979. He was ousted from power by a coup, and his successor – arguably analogous to the physician character – lasted 68 days in office.
Uganda continues to feel the effects of its colonial past, that very first invasion by outside powers who saw natural resources and geographic advantages and a market. It’s that violence that leaves permanent wounds on a nation and its people, and exactly the kind of violence laundered as a spectacle for Hollywood action movies. In The Expendables, the bad guys are brought to justice, but the crime is never identified. Jamie Shannon knows better, despite learning nothing from the story and having no character arc. His eyes are just as heavy in the end as they were initially. Maybe there’s hope for Zangaro, but it wasn’t his first playground and won’t be his last.