‘Savage Dog’: Film Review
British martial arts expert Scott Adkins stars in the latest low-budget feature from action director Jesse V. Johnson.
Former stuntman and genre expert Jesse V. Johnson (The Package, The Fifth Commandment) has been churning out low-budget actioners featuring a string of recognizable B-list names over more than a decade for a mostly niche audience. Savage Dog may marginally raise his profile with a slightly more ambitious premise, but it still seems destined to find the broadest audiences in home-entertainment formats.
Johnson, who also wrote the script, selects an intriguing setting for the film: the Vietnamese region of Indochina following the retreat of French forces in the mid-1950s. The power vacuum that resulted from the collapse of colonial rule thus favored the rise of local warlords and the infiltration of a variety of undesirable European fugitives and criminals.
Among them, Martin Tilman (Scott Adkins of Expendables 2) is a former champion boxer and IRA fugitive who joined the French Foreign Legion to avoid trial in Britain, although by 1959 he’s still serving a six-month sentence for assaulting a superior officer three years earlier. His extended incarceration has more to do with his value to his jailers than his threat to society, however. Prison camp commandant Steiner (Vladimir Kulich), a former Nazi SS officer, and his coterie of criminals led by boxer Rastignac (Marko Zaror of Machete Kills) rely on Tilman to generate cash by arranging no-holds-barred fights between Tilman and other prisoners for an audience of eager gamblers. It’s been a good run, but when a British operative tracks Tilman down seeking custody so that the Irishman can be tried in the U.K., Steiner secretly releases him rather than deal with the disruption to his lucrative operation that would result from a formal investigation.
Lacking a passport or any personal resources after his prison stint, Tilman takes a bouncer job at a local bar for Valentine (Keith David), an American expat veteran with his own shady past. It’s a brief peaceful interlude for Tilman, who takes the opportunity to pursue Isabelle (Juju Chan of Fist of the Dragon), a half-European Vietnamese local who waitresses at the bar under Valentine’s fierce protection. Steiner soon makes Tilman a proposal to get back in the ring for a substantial portion of the take and the fighter warily agrees, but when a rigged match results in tragedy, Tilman vows to take revenge on Steiner and his goons, no matter the cost.
The plot follows a fairly predictable revenge-seeking arc lifted from a classic Western template, guided by Valentine’s platitudinous voiceover extolling the virtuous origins of Tilman’s reputation as the Savage Dog. Not that it matters much, because despite various glaring lapses of logic, it’s all in the service of a seemingly limitless series of brawls and shootouts bringing Tilman to his final bare-knuckled confrontation with Rastignac.
These sequences quickly develop an overwhelming similarity, relying on a steady supply of mixed martial arts fighters, most with approaches largely similar to Adkins’, resulting in disappointingly minimal stylistic variation. Although the entire second half of the film is devoted to Tilman’s revenge mission, a good deal of screen time gets absorbed with adeptly staged gun battles rather than fistfights.
Adkins proves more than capable with either tactic and even manages some grunted gallows humor in between his highly efficient jabs and roundhouse kicks. It’s not until he faces off against Chilean martial arts specialist Zaror’s sadistic Rastignac that his dominance is ever in doubt. Johnson’s stated ambition to create a Savage Dog franchise is affirmed by the film’s conclusion, which should leave plenty of opportunity for Tilman to go on eliminating undesirables and attracting the admiration of grateful innocents.
Production companies: Bleiberg Entertainment, Compound B
Distributor: XLrator Media
Cast: Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror, Cung Lee, Juju Chan, Keith David, Vladimir Kulich
Director-writer: Jesse V. Johnson
Producers: Ehud Bleiberg, Charles Arthur Berg, Jesse V. Johnson
Executive producers: Nicholas Donnermeyer, Scott Adkins, Tims Johnson, Narbeh Tatoussian, Jon Lee Brody, Barry Gordon, Michael Radiloff
Director of photography: Gabriel Gely
Production designer: Ryan Kaercher
Costume designer: Larae Mychel
Editor: Matthew Lorentz
Music: Sean Murray