The plot deals with a conspiracy to overthrow the dictatorship of the fictional African nation of Zangaro. The country once had a troika of independence leaders, but one was imprisoned, one fled into exile, and the last man standing, General Kimba, is a despot with a cult of personality. British business interests want to replace him with Col. Bobi, the exile, who'll sign over mineral rights to them. They want Shannon to scout out the country and judge the prospects for an overthrow. His reconnaissance is slightly sloppy and he ends up beaten and imprisoned. In stir, he befriends the imprisoned leader Dr. Okoye. Released, he decides to make that last try with his wife and start a new life. When that fails, he takes on the task of organizing a small force to topple Kimba and clear the way for Bobi to take power.
The climactic storming of Kimba's garrison should impress viewers more recently captivated by the raid on Osama bin Laden's home in Zero Dark Thirty. Irvin and Cardiff paint the scene in explosive chiaroscuro and the action has that visceral CGI-free vitality that's so refreshing in older films. They frame everything so effectively that you might believe there's more to the picture than there actually is. Actually, the problem isn't so much what's lacking but the extraneous expectations created by what the writers put into the story. The emphasis they give to Shannon's personal character arc seems to point to an inevitable death. Yet Shannon lives to fight another day, though an unexpected action he takes at the end should throw his future as a mercenary into question. This ending apparently follows the novel, but the novel does bring Shannon's career to an end while the movie leaves him locked in life's longest, lousiest commute, less a soldier than a simple working stiff with a license to kill and a target on his back.
What to make of Walken? It's shocking to remember how smooth or almost baby-faced he was back then, the eternally dead eyes notwithstanding. He conveys Shannon's alienation effortlessly, but whether his is the alienation of the perpetual (or periodic) soldier or whether his alienation itself seeks such a trade remains an open question. We never really know the character well enough to recognize his alienation as much more than a cliche of the period. Walken's scenes with JoBeth Williams as his wife seem more perfunctory in retrospect, once you lose the feeling that that was his absolutely final chance with her. For all you know, had there been a sequel he might have tried yet again with her. Instead of a tragic or heroic finish the hero seems stuck in some cycle, and a point might have been made more definitely about his perpetual hopelessness if the film didn't seem to just stop at a point.
Dogs of War is less dated than it could have been. Wisely, the filmmakers did away with much of the novel's Cold War trappings. The events could have happened yesterday, one suspects, instead of more than thirty years ago, and Irvin's happy reliance -- admittedly, he had no alternative -- on reality adds to the action's enduring immediacy. In our age of limitless CGI fantasy it can be thrilling simply to see a real plane taking off amid real explosions on the landing strip. If that's how you feel then regardless of any dramatic flaws The Dogs of War is a film for you.