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Dog Soldiers Review

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by Chris McEneany May 3, 2009

    Dog Soldiers Review

    Six soldiers. Full moon. No chance.

    Having dissected Neil Marshall's excellent subterranean chiller, The Descent, a couple of times already on the site, it now comes as a distinct pleasure to go back to his glorious, bullets 'n' biting horror/action hybrid from 2002, with the lean, mean testosterone-fuelled Dog Soldiers. Ever since Hammer's X-The Unknown pitted gruff British squaddies against something they'd never been trained to fight, there's been a fabulous allure to the concept of confident and skilled professionals coming unstuck in the face of unparalleled animalistic ferocity. Even Doctor Who was more effective when UNIT provided it with lots of heroic, beret-wearing monster-fodder. But, with his sights set on emulating the metaphor-rife decimation of Colonial Marines in Cameron's Aliens and, even more so, the primal do-or-die ethos of McTiernan's Predator, Marshall stripped the concept right down to the bone, upping the action and the claret-quota considerably when he unleashed a pack of nine-foot tall Scottish werewolves upon some of the British Army's finest.

    When they discover the bloody remains of a Special Forces unit, a group of six soldiers, led by Sean Pertwee's quip-loaded Sgt. Wells, quickly realise that their training exercise in the highland wilderness has gone drastically awry. Rescuing a badly mauled officer from the scene, they are horrified to hear him babbling on about the disquieting fact that “there was only supposed to be one” and with darkness fast approaching and the sound of howling and snarling coming hot on its heels, they are forced to go ballistic when the line dividing reality and folklore becomes very nastily blurred. With no radio contact and cut off from help, the squad encounter a lone woman called Megan (Emma Cleasby) who is able to drive them to a nearby farmhouse in which they hole-up for a night of ceaseless onslaught from the hairy, fang-faced predators who surround them.

    “We are now up against live, hostile targets. So, if Little Red Riding Hood should show up with a bazooka and a bad attitude, I expect you to chin the bitch!”

    Without a doubt, Neil Marshall created, with his first full-length feature film, a genre-fan's wet dream of a movie. Soldiers. Monsters. Gore. Briny dialogue. Fast action. And Guns ... lots of guns. It's got everything that you could wish for and, best of all, it comes wrapped in delicious low-budget ambition and smothered with a wickedly un-American attitude.

    With smart interaction between the men of the squad - check out their shoulder tabs to see that they are definitely “Dog” Soldiers - and plenty of twists and turns along the way, the film rises way above the generic action motifs that would, otherwise, have relegated it to standard straight-to-DVD obscurity. Barnstorming performances from Sean Pertwee and Kevin McKidd, as staunch super-soldier Cooper, and a darkly boo-hiss vein of aloof villainy from Liam Cunningham, as the bitter and sadistic Captain Ryan, also aid the movie in its proud and pro-active desire to deliver on all fronts possible, the script doing exactly what all the best novice filmmakers (Sam Raimi, John Carpenter etc) intend it to do on their road to becoming cult names - of having its cake and eating it too. And with Marshall being such a devout fan of the genre and incredibly assured in his violent war-wolf epic, he makes sure it gets seconds, too.

    “I'm still not convinced that these things didn't just escape from the local nut-house and forget to shave or trim their nails.”

    It is definitely nice to see that the werewolves are of the massive bipedal variety, but the use of dancers on stilts and Lassie-style heads makes for a pack of decidedly unusual looking monsters. But Marshall does a fine job of keeping shots of them weird, off-kilter and eerily graceful. The soldiers' fire-and-move fall-back after their initial contact, already an excellently staged sequence, is enhanced by the fleeting images of dark shapes and silhouettes pursuing them through the trees. The discovery of the gutted land-cruiser also offers us some finely atmospheric views of the encircling beasts as they loom up out of the smoke and flames - "Don't stare back at them," advices Cooper - and there is a beautiful shot during the final assault when two of them splendidly break through the smoke of Cooper's stun grenade on the upstairs landing. Marshall tilts the camera whenever we are treated to a full body shot of a werewolf, cutting off our observation of those statuesque legs and rather clod-hopping furry booties, but the effect is often still startling. Their leathery skin and shaggy manes are distinctive amongst the cinematic pack, and those talon-tipped paws are wonderfully cruel and spectral. The jovial Brit director also manages to garner a terrific performance from the family dog, Sam. Capturing the essence of Alien's transfixed cat, Jones, when the poor thing has to watch Harry Dean Stanton's foolish ship's engineer getting chomped, Marshall's pooch carries many similar close-ups of the surrounding slaughter with a truly haunting look in his eyes. He also gets to play with a lead character's bloody intestinal bandages during an instance of insanely unfortunate timing in one of the film's many mischievously macabre high-lights.

    “This is completely bone!”

    The comedy is pure British pub-level, the language earthy, real and justified. Only sulky private Joe's incessant footie-blather feels shoe-horned-in. But Pertwee, as far as I am concerned, has never been better. Always a likeable presence - even in dross like Paul W.S. Anderson's Soldier or farcical surf-drama, Blue Juice - he is stunningly charismatic here as the defiant Sarge and one of the most convincing British soldiers that I've seen in a fantasy-film like this. His ghoulish tale of fate's mysterious ways during a pre-contact rest-stop, is wonderfully modulated, his reply to the comical description of his ugly dead comrade - “Yeah, good looking bloke, real hit with the ladies” - is superbly delivered, and his ever-ready salty stubbornness is exactly the type of spirit-lifter that the members of a squad would genuinely respond to with humour, respect and staunch loyalty. I have to admit that the very first time I saw Dog Soldiers, his early wounding took me seriously by surprise and I thought, erroneously as it turned out, that the film would be doomed without such an electric character. But, you can't keep a good NCO down for long, can you?

    I'll discuss the domineering performance of Kevin McKidd later on, but let's have an inspection of the rest of the lads in this doomed patrol, shall we?

    Pvt. Spoon is the obvious wild-card, but he is certainly no zonked-out Hudson, as seen in Aliens. Playing precisely the type of rage-hard, wiry thug who would be as at-home on the terraces as he would storming enemy strongholds in Afghanistan, Spoon provides action, comedy and some good old-fashioned, home-grown dependability. He may act the fool, but this is the kind of rough, "mad-for-it" geezer that you would want beside you in a close-quarter contact. Thomas Lockyear gets the best name in the business with Cpl. Bruce Campbell (yes, really), but doesn't even make it as far his version of namesake's fateful cabin in the woods. Chris Robson is able to bring soccer-mad Joe a few steps out of Brit-cliché with some great shotgun-toting and a surging warrior-frenzy when he stares death literally in the face after the animals have outwitted the squad once again. Pvt. Terry Milburn, aka the Vomiting Cavalier, is the weak-chinned, weak-stomached, weak link in the chain. Yet, Leslie Simpson, who plays him, gives even this likeable bone-head some degree of machismo during the grand first wave of attacks on the farmhouse. Military stereotyping is always a burden in these things, but Marshall and his rock-steady crew heft their bergens and tab like the best of them. You can also clearly sense that some fundamental part of them actually loves the fact that they are stuck in this battle together and that all conventional rules of engagement are now off. Ditching their blank-firing SA80's and gathering up the Special Forces weapons they find on the gut-swilled deck is also a genuinely blood-pumping moment of lock 'n' load delight.

    “You want peace of mind - run before they tear the legs from under you.”

    “Now you just shut up like a good gentleman ... you're scaring my lads.”

    And all those top notch references - to Zulu, The Matrix, the Kobayashi Maru Test from Star Trek II amongst a slew of others - are special little bonuses for those in the know. The glorious front page headlines that sign the film off perhaps go a little too far, but they capture both the irrational scoops of the sensation-seeking tabloids and the whole here's mud in your eye spirit of the squad, and of the film, itself. Zulu is paid homage to time and time again. Spoonie even quotes the famous battle of Rorke's Drift, likening it to their situation (although he does exaggerate the number of Zulus involved quite alarmingly), but Marshall pays tribute to Cy Endfield's classic film with the galvanising sequence of Cooper and the Sarge hacking their way through walls in order to escape an enemy that has breached their defences. The Sarge, totally in-character, even beautifully paraphrases the great Nigel Greene's mellifluous request for Jack Hawkins to calm his fears in front of the men - as quoted above. And the classic line, “There is no Spoon,” is fantastically riffed-on with the Sarge's gory watch-retrieval.

    “Brilliant. We either stay and snuff it. Or we all go ... and snuff it.”

    “Decisions, decisions.”

    After an impromptu christening with Bruce's vomit, the despicable Ryan beautifully delivers the line “That's bloody charming, that is ...” and the tension of the scene is skilfully diffused. Cunningham brings Ryan's acerbic nature to the fore, but the patrol's refusal to simply cast him out to the wolves is much more credible than, say, the Marines' treatment of the treacherous Company Man in Aliens. Cooper, certainly, is eager to slot him, but duty comes first. Beyond the sly narrative, itself, Marshall's script is actually extremely good when it comes to the laddish banter of the squaddies. He had obviously read up a lot of SAS autobiographies to get the terminologies right, but his real ability was in getting his cast to imbue such grim humour with nothing but absolutely credible down-to-earth panache. Occasionally, a line clunks to the floor like lead, but the overwhelming majority of the dialogue rings true. Even the breathless final arguments about who stays to holds the things off, and who's not going to be left behind etc, have a definite resonance to them. Pertwee and McKidd are exceptionally strong with such material. These exchanges always run the risk of sounding contrived and clichéd, and they possibly sail close to the wind even here, but they bravely manage to remain on the right side of the fence where these two are concerned. Comrades-in-arms to the very last, there is something incredibly touching about their relationship, even amidst the all-round camaraderie. Where Marshall's script comes slightly adrift is in the character and dialogue of Megan, who is prone to spouting some frothy lad-speak in less than convincing fashion and, truth be told, is rather dumbly bolted on to the plot. Twists notwithstanding, Marshall does not seem totally at ease with her and there is a strangely sour chord struck whenever she takes centre-stage, almost as though he didn't really know quite what to do with her once they got to the farmhouse. Obviously, he got over his initial doubts and fears regarding female characters when he leapt headlong into the all-girl classic of The Descent, which is, very much, the ladies' version of Dog Soldiers - only far more savage.

    “Of course, the real trick to survival lies not in running and hiding, but in removing your enemy's capacity to hunt you down.”

    Battle-tactics and soldiering are expertly handled by all concerned. This troop looks genuine when out in the woods, covering one another and manoeuvring on-the-hoof, if you can forgive an early example of less-than-covert communal whistling, that is. Their siege defence is also highly authentic. These boys come across as practical, improvisational and highly competent. The array of pots and pans filled with boiling water with which to scald all those hairy paws that come grabbing through windows, is a great little touch. Their weapons-handling is up there with the best, even if there is a moment when Cooper tells his mob to fire in three-shot bursts, yet, the second the wolves appear, the film is becomes alive with uncontrolled fully automatic fire. Mind you, who can blame them? Clearly taking their cue from both Aliens and Predator in their professional etiquette when encountering something that isn't in the Soldier's Handbook, I would actually have to say that Marshall's men are more convincing than the likes of Hicks, Vasquez and Hudson, and certainly more believable as troops facing the savage unknown than any of Arnie's high-protein-fed team. These boys continually assess and re-assess their situation in momentary lulls in the siege and, instead of arguing amongst themselves as so many of their similarly threatened movie-relations would do, their sparring actually moves their strategies forward, no time being wasted in banal interplay.

    “Have you ever heard of Special Weapons Division? They're the ones in white coats who train dolphins to sticks mines on submarines and cute furry animals to tear your head off at the neck.”

    The actual horror elements are spot-on, too. There is real fear when the team discover the shredded remains of Ryan's hunter-force and the growing sense of futility as the night wears on is palpable. The ghastly discovery in the barn - that head-tossing is a gore-hound's delight - and the various snatch 'n' gouge set-pieces are deliriously macabre. Poor Spoonie's epic last-ditch face-off in the kitchen, in which he uses literally everything to hand (apart from the sink) to battle the beasts off is a stand-out of strenuous, sustained adrenaline. Morfitt goes into a very convincingly terrified combat-rage that simply sizzles with a combination of heroic pride, frantic frustration and sheer gut-wrenching dread. He even makes an earlier moment of decoy-bravery strangely affecting. I mean there's not many people who could make the immortal line of “Come and 'ave a go if you think yer hard enough!” as gung-ho and jubilant as he does without it sounding fiercely self-aware and bogus, as well. Elsewhere, a shock transformation scene seems initially cheapo in the extreme, by having it take place out of sight behind the kitchen table, and with only the sound of gasping and grunting and clothes ripping emanating from the shadows, it can't help but remind of comedy routines in the likes of Morecombe And Wise or The Two Ronnies, or even Harry H. Corbett's hair-sprouting episode from behind the couch in Carry On Screaming, but this cost-cutting exercise actually harks back to vintage cinema shtick and works on a blissfully nostalgic level of shivery tension too. The sight of two werewolves snapping at one another over the scattered remains of a victim is chillingly grim, as well. And then there's the slightly hokey prologue scene with two campers suffering a horrific coitus-interruptus - the sight of the tent's zip being dragged upward quite quickly is surprisingly skin-prickling. Normally, it would be done slowly to drag out the fear-factor, wouldn't it?

    “I hope I give you the s**ts, you f***ing wimp!”

    Admit it, as last-lines go, that's one of the best.

    Marshall works wonders with his limited location and setting. His wild set-piece mayhem is directed with absolutely cracker-jack timing and editing - the power and exhilaration of the two main assault sequences are truly heart-pounding and Marshall cuts between various protagonists and their own vicious contacts with sheer bravado and an expertly whip-lash visual style that is hyper-kinetic and utterly successful at nudging you to the edge of your seat. I do wonder just how the distance between the farmhouse and the barn seems to increase by miles when Cooper has to make his heart-pounding run back from it, but this conventional suspense-building trick is more than smoothed-over with the ace slo-mo shot of Wells coming out of the door with a Molotov cocktail in his hand.

    But besides Marshall's raw filmic savvy, the other breakout attribute here has just got to be McKidd, who steals the show. Previously seen as a young priest in Father Ted - making a portentous military-style escape from the lingerie section of a department store along with a veritable platoon of other clergymen under the command of Dermot Morgan's awesome Ted - he gives a performance of roaring strength and vigour. Not long after his barnstorming (quite literally barnstorming, as it turns out) in this, he would assume the bruising role of Lucius Vorenus in the great TV show Rome. His introduction during the over-the-top brutality of his Special Ops Selection process is a terrific little action movie in its own right, McKidd perfectly coming across as a real, take-no-brown-stuff, hard-ass as well as revealing an immediately audience-winning affection for dogs. His adamantium-solid resilience and resourcefulness in the field may make him look like a cross between Rambo and Sgt. Rock, but everything we see him do is borne out of the situation and the character's absolute refusal to ever give in. His fierce Scottish brogue is also the perfect antidote to many a Yank star's smug, committee-written one-liner and his terrifically implacable and stoic face is just the type to make any ravenous werewolf think twice about getting too close for a nibble. Undoubtedly the rock that this film is anchored to, McKidd should have an action figure released of his resolute Cooper. I mean they did bring the wolves out in plastic, after all.

    With a top score from Mark Thomas, that blends blistering percussive action cues, an eerie arboreal sound design, some pivotal character themes based around the folk melody Lyke Wake Dirge and even finds time to adapt Claude Debussy's evocative Clair De Lune for a moonlit piano recital, Dog Soldiers performs miracles with minuscule money - gaining the look, the action, the music and the performances that would make the world sit up and take notice both of a simple soldiers vs werewolves yarn, and the man who made it.

    Brilliant, brutal and built with, to quote Pvt. Spoon, “balls of British steel,” Dog Soldiers is a cult classic that never fails to excite, amuse and stimulate whether there is a full moon or not.