Dog Soldiers (2002)

3 Oct

I'll confess: My heart leaped for joy and I made a squeaky little happy noise when I realized I was getting REAL LIVE werewolves and not CGI cartoons.

As much as I love a good vampire, zombie or werewolf flick, it’s easy to feel like the monster movie genre has nothing new to offer. Which is precisely why a film like Neil Marshall’s “Dog Soldiers” stands out. As the writer-director himself said, it’s a soldier film with werewolves in it, and not the other way around. It turns out that subtle difference in philosophy pays off big for audiences.

“Dog Soldiers” sends a squad of military men out into the Scottish wild for what appears to be a routine training exercise, albeit a high-stakes one. After a tense first night, Sgt. Harry Wells (Sean Pertwee) and his men discover the wrecked remains of a secret cadre of players in the operation. Pvt. Cooper (Kevin McKidd) recognizes the camp’s lone survivor as Capt. Ryan (Liam Cunningham) with the special forces. Before anyone can figure out what’s really happening, the team is besieged by an unknown enemy. They make an escape and run into zoologist Megan (Emma Creasby) who offers them a lift to a nearby farm. As the sun falls, the mysteries fade away, and the soldiers are left to fight a foe the likes of which they could never have imagined.

“Dog Soldiers” soars on the strength of its characters. From the get-go, you’re given a true sense of the camaraderie of the squad members, and of the special bond between Wells and Cooper. The men are friends, yes, but the ties run far deeper; the sense that any of these men would willingly lay down their life for the others is perceptible even before they face any real danger. Marshall’s smartly written dialogue serves a multitude of purposes, but his best scenes may be the non-essential ones. A few chatty sequences don’t serve the plot in much of any way, but they provide us with wonderfully real moments, especially between Wells and Cooper. That we end up caring so much about these characters that we know comparatively little about is testament to the power of the writing and the wisdom of letting those scenes play.

I agree with Marshall’s assertion that “Dog Soldiers” is a soldier movie with werewolves instead of vice versa — but the bits that showcase the werewolves are really good. For much of the film, we get only fleeting glimpses of the creatures. They are frequently shown in silhouette — a form which is highly unsettling. In a film which isn’t itself particularly scary, the werewolves do add a dimension of horror which would otherwise be absent. They are cleverly designed creatures, and thought has clearly been given as to how to make them convincing, menacing human-wolf hybrids. And, it must be said, their effectiveness owes much to the fact that they are real. Each werewolf is animatronic, and yes, you can tell, but the actors are able to realistically react to the creatures, to really fight them, to know what they look like, and the contrast between this tactic and the ever-present CGI beastie is marked.

These actors are wonderful at getting you to care about them. They also talk really fast.

Pertwee turns in a lovely performance as Wells, but the real weight of the film is on McKidd’s Cooper, and he shoulders it beautifully. McKidd brings a solid blend of machismo and emotion to a role that could easily veer too far either way. His realistic portrayal of a man who is a professional soldier but isn’t an automaton imbues the action with a seriousness it might not otherwise possess. Cooper contrasts completely with Cunningham’s Capt. Ryan, a professional soldier who has sacrificed his humanity for career advancement. Ryan is 100% baddie, yet somehow the performance is not so broad as to be ineffective. The filmmakers and actor smartly figure that Ryan’s utter detachment is enough villainy and refrain from verging into manaical or crazed territory.

Unfortunately, story is where “Dog Soldiers” starts to fall apart a bit. It’s unlikely men with military training, even simple “squaddies,” would be so blind as to what’s really going on in the remote Scottish wilderness. It takes far, far too long for the men to begin putting the pieces together, which does shake the viewer’s faith in them. At nearly two hours, the film could have benefitted from some judicious pruning, and moving the mystery-solving action along would’ve been a good start. Also story-wise, the use of two (!) deus ex machina comes off particularly lazy since the prior action has been fairly taut and believable (for a werewolf movie). I suspect the problem with creating such awesome monsters is it becomes difficult to dispatch them, but the ultimate solution shouldn’t be so dissatisfying.

As werewolf movies go, it’s hard to demand much more than what Marshall delivers with “Dog Soldiers.” Even with its faults, it’s one of the freshest takes on the monster in years, and its bold use of physical effects rather than CGI is to be commended. With this bold and brash debut, Marshall clearly shows all has not yet been accomplished in the horror genre, and he sets the bar high for new entries to the game. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.

Dog Soldiers“: Rated R. Starring Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma Cleasby, Liam Cunningham, Thomas Lockyer, Darren Morfitt, Chris Robson and Leslie Simpson. Written, directed and edited by Neil Marshall. Cinematography by Sam McCurdy. Original music by Mark Thomas. Animatronic models designed by Richard Darwin.


One Response to “Dog Soldiers (2002)”


  1. Dog Soldiers (2002) – Badass Scots vs. Werewolves and flying cows | Mean Goblin magazine - May 2, 2014

    […] Dog Soldiers (2002) […]

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