Overview: After being betrayed, an ex-IRA soldier in 1950s Indochina swears revenge on the men who destroyed his life. XLrator Media; 2017; Not Yet Rated; 95 minutes.
80s Cheese Done Right: Of all the action schlock to come from our old friends XLrator Media, Jesse V. Johnson’s Savage Dog is, if not the best, then certainly the most viscerally satisfying. I could easily see this film being made in the 80s by Cannon Films starring either a haggard Chuck Norris or a kickboxing Jean-Claude Van Damme. It’s the kind of preposterous action cheese where sweaty, shirtless men give poignant speeches before gutting each other with bowie knives while knee-deep in mud; where invincible Rambo-like heroes take out a small army of extras with nothing but a rifle and a pissed off attitude; where men will throw away their guns after cornering the protagonist mid-killing spree so they can have a fair fistfight because these things matter dammit! It also helps that—while I did spot the occasion CGI effect—most of the special effects are practical and lovingly realized. Geysers of blood spray from beneath machetes buried deep in collarbones, heads erupt into Cronenbergian showers of gore, and big buildings go up in cataclysmic fireballs. It’s a fun reminder of how cathartic brainless action cinema can be when time and effort goes into it. But make no mistake: Savage Dog is undeniably brainless.
The story seems less like an actual story than a sausage stuffed with the ground-up remains of dozens of other, better action films, particularly Lance Hool’s Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985) and Mark DiSalle and David Worth’s Kickboxer (1989) Martin Tilman (Scott Adkins) is an ex-IRA soldier who somehow made his way to French Indochina in the late 1950s before being arrested in a town run by the world’s accumulated filth: ex-Nazis, Vietnamese warlords, and wealthy criminals who’ve found a haven in the lawless countryside following France’s surrender to the Communists. After being forced to participate in bloodsports against other prisoners for three years, he’s suddenly released. He shacks up with a local woman and her adopted father (played by Keith David) and for a time he finds the happiness life had never afforded him. But after a time the villains running the town force him to return to their underground fighting den. They then make the catastrophic mistake of cheating his father-in-law of his property before killing him and shooting his lover. Martin reacts in the manner expected of muscle-bound action heroes: he flips out and sets out to murder every single sonuvabitch running the town.
A Good Villain Can Go a Long Way: Throughout the movie, the most interesting character is Marko Zaror’s Rastignac. Unlike his Balzac counterpart, he seeks no social advancement or elevation—he enjoys his existence as a ruthless enforcer and “executioner” of contestants who lose their fights. Despite being one-note, he brings an intensity to the role that somehow outstrips Tilman’s tedious vengefulness and the town’s other motley of scum and villainy. It helps that Zaror, a martial arts movie star in his own right, brings a skill and passion into his many one-on-one fights with Martin not easily replicated with stock stuntmen. And thankfully, Johnson was smart enough to not rely on shaley-cam and obnoxiously frenetic editing. These fights scenes look like they hurt.
Closing: Savage Dog is dumb, but entertaining. It says nothing new, breaks no new ground, and isn’t particularly brave in its choice of subject matter. But it scratches the action itch better than many mainstream action films I’ve seen in theaters recently. And for a dumb action film, can we ask for much more?