The slasher (supernatural or otherwise) stalking teens, the monster in either the closet or under the bed that waits to leap out at an unsuspecting family, the failed experiment which is a dark mirror held up to its creator are all of this type. Monsters, proper monsters at that, come in a wide variety of forms, but tend to reflect the struggles each character endures throughout the story.
So where do werewolves fall in that vein? The person who loses control and becomes a monstrous beast – feral, vicious, pure instinct – is a brilliant way of reflecting the loss of control. Going all the way back to “The Wolf Man” starring the great Lon Chaney Jr., this subgenre of movie monster has cropped up far less than vampires, or space aliens, or random slashers. Quick – name a werewolf movie that’s not called “An American Werewolf in London” or “The Howling.”
What then of the film maker who decides to make a movie featuring antagonistic werewolves that face off against British soldiers on a training mission – men who have the skill, experience, and drive to shoot Fate in the face and the sass to tell it to f%$^ right off for good measure? Said film maker delivers a movie that mixes genres into a bloody mess that’s by turns hilarious, scary, graphic, and awesome.
“Dog Soldiers” is the roaring 2002 debut from Neil Marshall (“The Descent”, “Centurion”) who drops us into the Scottish woodlands alongside a pack of mouthy British Army soldiers as they play a wargame against a crew from the Special Operations division. When the SpecOps team turns up massacred with nary a
full body to be found and their wounded leader, Captain Ryan, surrounded by spent ammunition and screaming about being outnumbered by an unknown assailant, the Army unit drops the game to confront an enemy hidden by fog, dense woods, and inscrutable accents.
Soon enough, the realization sets in that they aren’t up against a pack of random killers. After buttoning up at the only house for miles with a mysterious woman , they are forced to hunker down for a siege like no other.
One of the killer aspects of “Dog Soldiers” is how the film plays it straight. No one laughs at the scenario, and the actors hurl themselves into their roles. At the top of the ticket is Kevin McKidd as Cooper, the insubordinate private who against all odds never fails to make a smart ass remark (his one at the end has been a personal favorite of mine for years). McKidd is solid as the no-nonsense type that finds himself as the calm center of a bloody storm. If you’re familiar with his work ranging from “Rome” to “Grey’s Anatomy,” then you need to check out “Dog Soldiers” if only to listen how magical it is when he unleashes invective upon invective.
If any one person could be accused of stealing the show, it is Sean Pertwee as Sgt. Wells, the bloke in command of the training operation. Pertwee is hilarious as the gruff but caring leader who will not accept any losses under his command. He’s a firm taskmaster, yet offers strength to his men to get them through alive. He makes it clear in a few gestures and looks that he’s been with the team for a while and considers them as much family as he does his oft-mentioned wife.
When the mission goes sideways, a switch flips and gone is the guy out for a weekend roughing it with his mates. What’s left is the professional soldier that will kill any and all threats to his team. As the film wears on and both men face an increasing array of brutal challenges and difficult choices, their roles begin to swap. As far as mentor/mentee roles go in this type of genre picture, “Dog Soldiers” avoids cliche and makes the relationship count.
Counterbalancing Sgt. Wells as the devil on Cooper’s shoulder is Ryan, the shifty operator ably played by Liam Cunningham (“Titanic”, “Game of Thrones”). He doesn’t have much to do physically other than sit around for a good stretch of the film, but lethality oozes out of him. Every glance, each smirk, and all of his lines are laser focused on escaping the situation and, if necessary, taking out anyone who stands in his way. His mission is separate from Cooper’s group, and it’s easy enough to guess what it is, but there are still dramatic fireworks when the two collide. Cunningham is one of my favorite character actors because he sells every scenario he’s in no matter how ridiculous (“Game of Thrones” fans know this all too well).
Were I to knock the film for one thing in particular it would be the cinematography. The crew makes the most of what they have to work with, but the film is frequently darker than it should be, and the action is often shot too close to the subjects. These are rookie mistakes that often happen in early films, and when you watch enough movies you notice the difference between those just starting out and the ones made by industry veterans. This is one of those times. It doesn’t hurt the film, but it stands out.
Speaking of which, I want to give special recognition to the makeup department and the designer(s) of the werewolf suits because they look amazing. There’s only a few times in the film when you get a long, clean look, because, again, “Dog Soldiers” is a low budget monster movie. But the amount of care and work that went into designing the suits is obvious. I relish how genuinely huge they are. The performers are on stilts, and they’re all hair, teeth, claws, and fury. As far as movie monsters go, these are so good they deserve more people enjoying them.
But like I said, part of the fun is that the monsters are not used to any of their victims fighting back and certainly not with machine guns and explosives and harsh language. As close to a supernatural Alamo as you’re likely to find, “Dog Soldiers” comes highly recommended to the horror fan, or just plain fans of fun movies. It’s easy to see why the leads all springboarded to bigger careers because each one tries to steal the movie from the others. It makes for an extra layer of fun imagining all of the actors working to one-up each other in their respective scenes. The action is frenetic, frequent, and for the most part well executed.
If you’re looking for a solid and entertaining 90 minutes, “Dog Soldiers” fits the bill and then some. Give it some love, and you might find yourself watching a surprisingly good werewolf movie featuring characters you like, villains you loathe, and excellent action.