Savage Dog, 2017.
Written and directed Jesse V. Johnson.
Starring Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror, Cung Le, Juju Chan, Vladimir Kulich, and Keith David.
A story set in Indochina in 1959, a land beyond rule and a time without mercy and the birth of a legend.
Scott Adkins is busy these days. He seems to have had about 100 films out this year already, and in the UK alone fans have been treated to the double whammy release of Savage Dog and Boyka: Undisputed on the same day. Adkins is stepping up as the undisputed king of straight to video action. That crossover to the big screen as a leading man still alludes him, but he’s still found his own market and kept his standards mostly high.
Savage Dog marks the first of Adkins triple bill with director Jesse Johnson (well established already as a stuntman turned director, and nephew of legendary stuntman, Vic Armstrong). Accident Man will follow, and everything will be rounded off with the mouth watering Triple Threat which brings together a collection of the most exciting on screen fighters currently working (including Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, Tiger Chen, and Michael Jai White).
Savage Dog sees Adkins as Martin Tillman, an Irish boxer out in Indochina 1959, in a French occupied camp run by a collection of war criminals and outsiders. Tillman has his own past he’s escaping from, with death row awaiting him back in his homeland. The film plays out like a mix of Casablanca and Kickboxer, by way of Michael Winner and Sam Peckinpah. Make of that what you will. Tillman is a prisoner in the camp, fighting against his will. When released he tries to get on quietly with his life, working as a doorman at bar run by Valentine (Keith David). He falls for Isabelle (Juju Chan). However he can’t escape his former captors, headed by Nazi war criminal Steiner (Vladimir Kulich) and the psychotic Rastignac (Marko Zaror) who want him to continue fighting. After a thrown fight, which unbeknown to Tillman, his friend Valentine has gambled everything on (the wrong way), Rastignac destroys Tillman’s world leaving his friend dead, and he and Isabelle presumed dead. Tillman recovers and sets about hunting the men for revenge, knowing he must leave everything (including Isabelle) behind. Opening up a level of insanity within himself which he’ll not be able to recover from. It’s a thirst for vengeance that will need quenching.
It’s an odd film. It’s difficult to get behind Tillman. In any other film he’d probably be an antagonist. He’s unbalanced and his attempts at living serenely mask a deep seeded inability to do so. However it were to happen, his breakdown was inevitable, and his need to fight was always there. The second half is a straight up revenge film. Likewise the extreme levels of violence could put some off. At first it’s pretty jarring but in a strange way you become accustomed to it, and soon the slightly exaggerated gore borders on Grindhouse. It begins to get almost comical. I didn’t find the film as slow moving as some seem to have. It’s pretty solidly packed with action throughout. The unconventional dashes to a very conventional story will put off many. It’s these I found interesting, even in those moments that I felt went too far. DTV action films don’t take enough risks with tone, style, character (well…anything) on the whole. When they do it engages me (see Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning for the absolute best example of that).
Adkins does what is asked of him with assurance as far as performance. On the physical side he delivers with typical aplomb of course. Kulich and Zaror ably deliver the required villainy, with Kulich in particular adding some complexity. Keith David is ever reliable and the remainder of the cast are solid. My only gripe was Cung Le. Not for his performance persay but because Boon seemed the most honourable of the principle cast (David aside) and it would have been nice to delve further into his character and indeed it’s the best performance I’ve seen from Le.
The action is solid. On the whole it’s mostly done practically as far as pyrotechnics and weapons (with some occasionally less than stellar CGI filling in some gaps). The fights are well choreographed and performed. You’d expect that from the cast involved and indeed Jesse Johnson behind the camera, having become a veteran of action pictures. I still remember one of his breakout features Pit Fighter, a solid tournament film with (much like Savage Dog) a Peckinpah inspired ending. Everything builds to a manic, carnage filled finale which includes a stand-out mano-a-mano with between Adkins and Cung Le. Actually the excessive nature of the final action scene brought to mind the warehouse sequence in his Uncle Vic’s Dolph Lundgren opus, Joshua Tree (also known as Army of One).
Savage Dog is nicely put together. Whilst it’s clearly on a restrained budget, the confined setting builds a firmly established world in which the story exists. Johnson provides assured direction, and Gabriel Gely some good cinematography. The score by Sean Murray was interesting too. Something a little different than the atypical score for this kind of film. Despite meandering in places and having a protagonist who gets a bit too savage to be redeemed (kind of the point too…but it will alienate some), action fans will enjoy and it opens up the Johnson/Adkins triple bill well. The latter two probably fit all the more firmly within the fans “preferred” Adkins mould but regardless, there’s more than enough here to satisfy.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★