David G. Hughes on Jesse V. Johnson’s ‘Savage Dog’ (2017)
It used to be that when the hero of the film sought an eye for an eye against evil-doers, there were unwritten rules about what could and could not be done, so as not to strain our moral identification with the protagonist.
A famous story exists in which John Wayne, upon direction from Don Siegel to “shoot him in the back!” paused and resolutely replied, “I don’t shoot people in the back.” Wayne represented a form of heroism we associate with myths of American righteousness. You could even say it was naive and unrealistic heroism. Can good be done whilst keeping one’s hands clean? As a retort, Siegel responded, “Clint would have shot him in the back,” referring to a Mr Eastwood, whose career Siegel had launched into the stratosphere with the down and dirty exploits of Detective Harry Callahan—a more vicious emblem of law and order.
Savage Dog, true to its title, belongs to the latter-day, post-Clint heroism. It appears almost nothing is off-limits for Martin Tillman, the vengeance-seeking hero played by the sinuous Scott Adkins — a martial artist par excellence. Director Jesse V. Johnson, who directed the serviceable Steve Austin/Dolph Lundgren actioner The Package (2013) before this, conceptualises Indochina, circa 1959, as a place bordering on chaos, where violent outcasts of international flavours and various political allegiances congregate—Nazi runaways, warlords, murderers, and ex-terrorists.
Tillman himself is a former IRA soldier, on the run from his dark past, but more literally from the British authorities. We meet Tillman as the undisputed king of topless mud wrestling, operating as a bare-knuckle fist-fighter. He soon falls in love and the archetypal action hero narrative takes its course—a lost soul finds his way with the help of a woman, only to seek revenge and his redemption when his newfound utopia is disrupted by dark forces of the past.
What’s not archetypal about this hero story is Tillman’s fantastically gruesome barbarism. His path of vengeance commences when Keith David, who lends his sonorous voice to the film’s somewhat trite voice-over, recites Revelation 6:8 (more popularly known as the beginning of Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around): “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and the name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” Consider that a Biblical prognostication come true, for Tillman’s first act is to hack away a screaming henchman’s head, proceed to walk in the bar and place it on the bar top as he orders a drink.
This isn’t the last piece of human anatomy to be dismembered in the film’s far superior second half, which features dexterous, non-stop action. Indeed, it becomes a recurring theme whereby Tillman will take a hand, impale a Nazi with a sabre, and eat a man’s interior organ fast enough for the victim to witness it prior to his passage into the afterlife. This outright savagery is surprising, no more so when Tillman “cheats” in a fist-fight by gunning down his unarmed opponent. But this is also part of the films rude appeal—and action fans will love it.
The action in this is of a quality standard. Having followed Adkins career closely, we should not hesitate to call him an artist. He has a clear passion for his craft and a quality standard that betters the most expensive Hollywood productions. In this case, he has some excellent fight sequences with former MMA fighter Cung Le as well as Chilean martial artist Marko Zaror, whose a pleasant charismatic standout.
But this isn’t his best choreography, failing to top his career-defining work in the Undisputed franchise or the Ninja films. But it is his work, and that means it’s a reliably passionate experience. Unlike with almost every other direct-to-video action hero, including Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme, you take a gamble as to whether their latest effort will be even worth your time (In Seagal’s case, there’s no gamble at all as they’re always atrocious). Through his dedication and consistency, Adkins has conquered the low-budget action film and become its King. He even does a fine Irish accent.
So the film proceeds in this explosive, somatic manner and tells us, “He was a killer, and that’s all there was to it.” As action fans go, that’s certainly all there is to it; we want inspired creativity and grace in the violent spectacle and just enough plot to prevent us from falling asleep. Despite its citations, Savage Dog is hardly the Book of Revelations, it’s standard plotting with little to say about anything. Yet Adkins and his director, whom he will collaborate with again on Triple Threat and Accident Man, understand the simple appeal of action cinema, and they deliver.
Savage Dog is available to stream on Netflix now