Jamie Shannon (Christopher Walken) is working as a mercenary in Central America, but the mission has not gone very well and he barely escapes from the region's airport with his life, heading back to his home in New York City with his tail between his legs. On arrival, he contemplates what to do next: shall he get back together with the woman (JoBeth Williams) he left behind, or should he throw himself straight into another excursion? He is already tired of seeing the kids begging on the streets of The Big Apple, so when he is contacted by a representative of a British mining corporation who have interests in a small African nation, he thinks, "What the hell..."
The first Frederick Forsyth novel to hit the big screen was his international hit The Day of the Jackal, a meticulously researched imagining of what would happen should General de Gaulle be subjected to an assassination attempt. Like the book, the film was a hit worldwide, and producers were keen to bring more of the writer's work to the cinema, which led us to The Odessa File, another substantial movie success and eventually to the effort that stopped that run in its tracks, The Dogs of War. It appeared fans of the text were not so keen on how this had been adapted, turning it into just another action flick in the style of many a mercenary yarn that littered the screens.
Well, they did back then, and as the seventies turned into the eighties the concept of the lone wolf man of action showed no signs of slowing down, that self-reliance very much in the air when it came to depicting popular heroes. But despite Forsyth's right-leaning views, he did not really pen that kind of fiction, preferring a grounded premise and details that were as authentic as possible: famously, when delving into real life coups for research, he met with genuine mercenaries and arms dealers, all under the pretence of staging a coup of his own (he didn't carry it out, he wasn't that dedicated to his art), and this was highly appreciated by the readers of his thriller fiction.
The trouble with that was that while readers of war novels and that sort of men's men writing liked to think they could judge whether what they were reading had a ring of truth to it, they had assuredly done so with The Dogs of War on the page, but were in the main a lot less convinced by its film version. It does have its fans, yet any purported seriousness was a holdover from the novel, as the plot points and action trappings that were in place here were significantly owing more to the Hollywood notion of what they felt Walken's troubled but capable soldier of fortune should be, which was curious in itself because this was a British production, and as its director John Irvin had been parachuted in to replace Norman Jewison. Irvin apparently because he had recently helmed the hit television series of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
That was a very serious John Le Carré adaptation, and there were indications the director was trying to bring that world-weary grit to this to craft a world where you could well believe this was how Third World politics were mired in outside pressures and inside corruption. Walken, too, was committed to a performance where his spacey intensity registered with his thousand yard stare, not unlike his star-making role in The Deer Hunter, yet you had a hard time believing he would either be a good undercover operative (he exudes suspicion) or a gun-toting he-man bringing down unstable governments. The business with his personal life just gets in the way, neither character building nor engrossing, so it's little wonder many watching this were left drumming their fingers waiting for the long-gestating action finale to arrive, and when it did it looked like a prototype for every macho bullshit action extravaganza to come in that decade. Tom Berenger was reportedly furious when his role as Walken's colleague was cut dramatically, but Colin Blakely was always going to steal the show as a boozy reporter. Music by Geoffrey Burgon.