Dog Soldiers

Review by Mike Finkelstein

For me, werewolves are an odd creature. They fit into the same genre as vampires, dark creature of the night that stalk victims, but werewolves have an extra layer added to them that, at least in my books, make them harder to relate to. A vampire, while being a monster, can still talk and seduce and be a real character. A werewolf, though, becomes a beast, more animal than man, and while that makes their human times more tragic it also makes them monsters that you can't relate to when they're actually monsters. They become a presence, a force. That's strong for when you want a group of people being mauled by monsters, but it does mean it's harder to get into the head of someone becoming a beast.

Dog Soldiers certainly buys in heavily on the idea of werewolves as monsters, for good and ill for the film. On the one hand it does allow us to see the beasts through the eyes of the humans they're attacking. At the same time, though, the film never positions the werewolves as anything other than wolves, so we can't really get into the head space of the villains. They remain beasts, from the start to the finish of the movie, and that drags down an otherwise solid horror cheapie. There are great performances that don't really get to shine as brightly because the film struggles to make us care about the human versus werewolves dynamic that should be the core of this movie.

The film focuses on Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd), a solider looking to get into an elite special forces unit. His trail for the group goes poorly, though, primarily because he won't shoot a dog, so the head of the group, Captain Richard Ryan (Liam Cunningham), rejects him and sends him back to his until. Days later, Cooper and his unit, led by Sergeant Harry G. Wells (Sean Pertwee) are sent on a routine training mission. Or so they think, but in reality there's something out in the woods, making the mission anything but routine.

When a couple of the men are attacked, seemingly by big wolves, the men make a break for it. They hitch a ride from a local biologist, Megan (Emma Cleasby), and head to a nearby vet's house so they can use their supplies to patch up the injured sergeant. But quickly they realize the vet and their family might just be the ones out in the woods, stalking them. Worse, they were sent there for a reason, as bait so Captain Ryan can try to capture one of the beasts and use them to make super soldiers. The army guys are going to have to fight through the night if any of them will have any hope of surviving 'til dawn when the wolves turns back into humans.

The premise of Dog Soldiers is an interesting one. It has that action figure smashed together sensibility of "who would win in a fight, trained soldiers or werewolves?" Honestly, you could expect to see something like this on Ultimate Warrior, with a few dudes saying, "well, the werewolves have raw power and they can tear and rend... but the soldiers have guns, and they are trained..." I like that idea of it, being able to pit two disparate groups together and make them fight it out. That is a fun idea.

Where Dog Soldiers falls apart is in its execution. It wants to be a big slug fest between soldiers and werewolves, but at a budget of only £2.3 Mil, it's hard to get good creature effects for the price. Instead, the film tries to do a lot with dark lighting, shaky cam, and shots of the soldiers shooting out into the night, but that isn't anywhere near as fun, or scary, as actually seeing werewolves come at soldiers in a knock down, drag out fight.

Additionally, the film gets deeply mired in its own ass. It has a plot that should be simple: soldiers are chased by werewolves, and then they fight. But instead it tries to build a back story for the family of wolves (despite us never meeting any of them). And then it adds a twist, and another twist, and another twist, and the story starts to conflict with itself and you realize it would ave just been better if the movie hadn't tried at all. It had reached horror perfection with "soldiers fight werewolves." What more do you need?

Why the film works at all is all due to the game cast. Kevin McKidd is a great actor, having starred in other genre work (including the canceled too soon Journeyman) and he does a fine turn here as our lead protagonist, strong with the men but still able to bring a certain emotive quality. Sean Pertwee is fantastic as the injured sergeant. He gets to play a wide range of emotions and you really care about him a lot as he goes through his journey. And Liam Cunningham gets to relish playing the heel, the closest we get to a real villain in the piece despite there being actual werewolves.

All the same, I wish the film could pull it all together a little better. The lead characters are fantastic, but the rest of the squad are generic, one-name and one-note fodder. The only female lead is saddled with a confusing story, and whatever chemistry she has with McKidd is wasted in a film that can't pursue it. And the action is just terrible. You want to enjoy the film because the actors are putting it really solid work, but the film just can't let you really enjoy the werewolves (when it can even show any portion of them at all).

Dog Soldiers is a great idea betrayed by a bad budget. With more money I think the werewolf effects could have been better and the action could have been staged to really show off the monsters. But the movie couldn't do that and we got a choppy mess of staging and production. I still liked it fine enough to sit through it, all thanks to the leads, but I lament the film we could have gotten if things had worked out different.