"The Dogs of War" looks like it should come with a gift subscription to Stag or Guns and Ammo.

In fact, the most facinating feature of the strenuously alienating exercise in sensationalism opening today at area theaters is a hand-held adaptation of the Gatling gun that can fire alternating rounds of rockets, gas pellets and hard-nosed bullets.

This prop could also help to turn Tom Berenger into a pinup, which may or may not secure the starring roles he probably deserves. Although cast in a supporting role -- second-in-command to the obsessed mercenary played by Christopher Walken, whose zombie trance and impenetrable motivation would be better suited to a zapfest about robots -- Berenger is spared unsightly hang-ups and handles the weaponry more sexily than the ostensible star.

But guns and beefcake may not be sufficient to transcend the viciousness of the entertainment. It's difficult to tell if "The Dogs of War" can endear itself to moviegoers by deliberately obscuring the plot and minimizing characterizaton in order to enhance the shock appeal of it scynicism, punchy editing, torture interludes and climactic combat spectacle.

That spectacle, a night assault, has been brilliantly lit by the great cinematgrapher Jack Cardiff and incisively shot by director John Irvin, making a skilfully depressing feature debut after rising to prominence with British TV productions like "Hard Times" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

Irvin worked on "Dogs of War" between dates with John le Carre ("Smiley's people" will reach us later in the year). Could he have urged screenwriters Gary DVore and George Malko to encode the plot of Frederick Forsyth's best-selling potboiler inside a crytic structure more typical of Le Carre's fiction? Unfortunately, the exasperating concealment is nonsense applied to a story where the characters have nothing significant to act enigmatic about.

Walken and his international cronies -- fellow Americans Berenger and Ed O'Neill plus Englishman Paul Freeman and Frenchman Jean-Francois Stevenin -- enter retreating from some South American country. Dwelling in austere isolation back in New York, the Walken character, named Jamie Shannon,appears to be preparing for a flip-out. God knows he's tight-lipped, but the mood is edgy and ominous. He opens the refrigerator door to reveal only six-packs and an automatic cooling on the shelves.

Walken's unrevealing funk is interrupted by a visit from a mysterious British manipulator, Simon Endean, played by Hugh Millais, who was far more impressive as the leader of the professional killers in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." Endean claims to represent a multinational corporation, satanically dubbed Manson Minerals and Industries, which would like to overthrow Kimba, the backward despot keeping development out of a West African state called Zangora, and replace him with an exiled rival who sees things their way.

Shannon proposes to case the joint. "A recon is no good if you don't come back," Shannon retorts archly, supplying us with as profound a clue to his deepest drives as the filmmakers condescend to drop. Arriving in the seedy capital city of Clarence, Shannon tries to pass himself off as a bird photographer and endures brutal beatings at the hands of Kimba's constables before being expelled.

Despite the unpleasantness, Shannon now know Zangora can be had. In fact, it seem such a flea-bitten outpost of tyranny that the coup is engineered with a handful of commandos hefting an abundance of firepower. Yet when the dust settles, what's in it for Shannon and his comrades or for us?

Nothing of value, evidently. There's a closing plot twist that's supposed to clear up the mystery and even transform Shannon into a conventional good guy after all, but it's scarcely clever or stirring enough to justify either the weird protagonist or the devious plot. The jagged, secretive style of exposition imposed on "The Dogs of War" leaves you feeling abused rather than involved. Ony an imbecile would care to root for any of the factions struggling over the fate of bedraggled Zangora (doubled by Belize, the former British Honduras, and unlikely to be mistaken for a garden spot of the tropics). Indeed, you wouldn't mind if everyone involved got greased.

Not that one cares about the fate of these chaps, of course, but what should one make of the ugly, unresolved racial hatreds suggested by showing Walken getting tortured by blacks ("Midnight Express" Goes to Africa!) and then white mercenaries leading the attack on Zangora, albeit with the collaboration of a black mercenary unit? It's not as if the movie had a moral or political context in which choosing sides and making value judgments would be appropriate. The latest refinement on le cinema du zap, "The Dogs of War" can be recommended only as a desperate snack for rabid tastes.