J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Savage Dog: No Bark, All Bite

Evidently, there is some truth to the historical urban legend about the fugitive National Socialist coming to Indochina as a member of the French Foreign Legion. However, he is not the only dodgy foreign national taking advantage of the power vacuum left after the French retreat. With the American military yet to arrive in force, a veritable United Nations of thugs and mercenaries will fight among themselves in Jesse V. Johnson’s Savage Dog (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Sure, there is a plot to Savage Dog, but there is no question the film’s real attraction is getting to see Scott Adkins square off against Cung Le and Marko Zaror. We will not have to wait long to see the wanted IRA hitman Martin Tillman display his skills. Steiner, an ex-German Foreign Legion officer turned warlord, quite profitably keeps him as his personal pit-fighter. Eventually, Tillman earns his freedom, but he voluntarily returns to Steiner’s employment, because it is really the best work available in the 1958 Indochinese jungle.

Tillman unleashes his inner demons in the pit, but the beautiful Isabelle appeals to the better angels of his nature. She is the illegitimate daughter of Steiner and a local woman, whom the Nazi Bond villain has never acknowledged. Tillman starts to fall in love with her while temporarily working as a bouncer at the tiny tiki bar owned by Valentine, an American expat. Inevitably, Steiner and his Spanish enforcer Rastignac will rudely interrupt their brief respite with a violent power play. They will leave Tillman for dead, but he won’t be dead enough.

There is no question Adkins is currently one of the best in the martial arts cinema business. Throughout Dog, Johnson has the good sense to step out of the way and showcase the chops of his cast. The fight between Adkins’ Tillman and Cung Le playing a corrupt cop in Steiner’s employ is pretty impressive, but the climatic face-off against Rastignac (portrayed by Zaror with gleefully sinister flare) is a no-holds-barred barn-burner. While the ending of the Cung Le fight might slightly disappoint purists, the Zaror battle builds to a deliriously over-the-top got-to-see-it climax.

Arguably, Adkins has the sort of quiet brooding charisma of the great 1980s action stars. He also develops some rather touching romantic chemistry with Juju Chan’s Isabelle. However, it is somewhat frustrating Savage Dogs fails to capitalize on Chan’s real-life talents as a martial artist, merely casting her as a damsel in distress, much like the Roger Corman-produced Fist of the Dragon. On the plus side, Keith David (narrator of Ken Burns’ Jazz) comes to play as the flamboyant-in-a-cynical-world-weary-kind-of-way Valentine.

Basically, the purpose of Johnson’s narrative is to get Tillman from one fight to another. It works well enough and the period setting adds an intriguing dimension. Of course, all that really matters is the degree to which Adkins, Zaror, and Cung Le tear it up. Highly recommended for action fans, Savage Dog opens tomorrow (8/4) at the Arena CineLounge Sunset in LA and releases the following Tuesday (8/8) on iTunes.

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