Sunday, July 6, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Dog Soldiers (2002)

Last night I watched the film Dog Soldiers with my friend Nick for his "Myopia: Defend Your Childhood" podcast. I first saw the movie in high school (it would have been 2002-2003) and although I'd seen it again a second time somewhat later, it was still long enough ago it worked.

So began my third watching of writer-director Neil Marshall's tale of a group of footy-loving British Army soldiers on maneuvers in the Scottish Highlands and their encounter with werewolves...

The Good

One of the best things about the movie is the soundtrack, particularly the downright tribal drum sequences associated with the werewolves. It's really quite stirring. The scene where the soldiers encounter the werewolves for the first time and "shoot and scoot" through the woods with the werewolves pursuing them was such a good example of a montage I used it in my film writing class (and apparently persuaded a pretty female classmate to purchase the film) at the University of Georgia.

For a film whose budget was around $5 million, the special effects are pretty good. The werewolves are men in suits, not computer-generated imagery, but considering the atrocious quality of CGI in many low budget movies (i.e. Sharknado, which may well have been doing it on purpose), even mediocre costumed critters are better. And these aren't mediocre. I remember when the film was new (at least in the USA) and trendy a lot of discussion about the quality of the costuming.

The action scenes are well-done. It's basically the Battle of Rorke's Drift--one character even explicitly references it--with werewolves. All sorts of interesting items get deployed as weapons when ammo runs low. And believe me, when the men fire like they do, it does.

Although the characters could use a bit more elaboration--they were introduced to the viewer twice, once when they deploy from their helicopter and the second time when Cooper (Kevin McKidd) introduces them to Megan (Emma Cleasby) and it was still hard to keep track of them--I did like the characters Spoon (Darren Morfitt) and the Sarge (Sean Pertwee). The former is amusing and hyperactive (something that comes in really handy a couple times) and the latter is a delightful hard-ass. The spooky story he tells the men at night is the perfect sort of thing a long-service non-commissioned officer (he references serving in the Gulf War, which would have been ten years before the events of the film) would tell the younger men. Joe (Chris Robson), although I don't remember ever quite getting his name, died quite well when he realized a werewolf was in the car with him. And Liam Cunningham (the future Davos Seaworth of Game of Thrones) does a good turn as an extremely unpleasant Special Forces captain. When your co-viewers are demanding his death halfway through the film, you know you've got a bad man.

And although sometimes it was hard to understand them, the film had a wide variety of British accents. The "British accent" most foreigners think is the British accent is actually one of many regional ones and they're all present in the film. This being a British film, it makes sense.

The Bad

It's slow. Jesus H. Sanchez, it's slow. There are random fades to black in different places, a scene in the beginning where the soldiers are marching along to this whistling soundtrack for no reason, etc. The film would have been much better if it were tightened significantly. The second time I saw this movie was for a writing group Halloween party and it must've been edited for television because I don't remember it being that bloody slow. Although that's the film's single major flaw, well, there's is the expression "how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?" Seriously, that's the most absolutely damning problem with the film.

Nick is convinced they used three cameras for the film and although two of them were quality cameras, one was not. Parts of the film look rather grainy, in a way that reminds me of a movie shot in the 1970s when camera technology wasn't as good. The opening of the film looks like a 1970s horror movie in terms of film quality. This is less noticeable later on, but it's still a problem.

The scene where the men are camped out for the night and somebody throws an eviscerated cow at them is nonsensical. The werewolves are almost certainly the ones responsible, but rather than attack the men in the open where they'd almost certainly wipe them out, it seem they just wanted to troll them. Given the explicit references to hikers disappearing in the area (that Cooper seems aware of from the get-go), it's not like the werewolves are trying to warn them away so they don't "have" to kill them. If that scene had been drastically trimmed--it can't be cut completely or we'd lose a good bit of characterization, particularly for Sarge--it would've also helped with the length.

The "rules of lycanthropy" could use a bit of clarification. There's dialogue between a character who was wounded (and healing unnaturally--bad sign) and character who was not using bathroom metaphors that sort-of explains the later revelation that a certain person who turns out to be infected was able to hold off the change for most of the night, but in that case it could have been better foreshadowed. The filmmakers did clearly remember the rule of Chekhov's Gun for a bunch of other matters and there is one scene involving the infected-character-who-does-not-change that drops a pretty darn big hint, so it's not like they couldn't have done this better.  Having this person acting sweaty and twitchy but explaining away as a response to stress or claiming to have suffered in the past from panic attacks would have been a good way to do it.

The Verdict

Good scenes, but it really needed a better editor. 5 out of 10. Interesting that this is where a lot of British actors who went on to bigger and better things (McKidd in HBO's Rome, Cunningham in Game of Thrones) got big parts.

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