Review: Jesse Johnson's SAVAGE DOG Is Fan's Best Friend


Follow action movies long enough and you're likely one of the many in line waiting to find out what director Jesse V. Johnson has in store with upcoming ensemble thriller, Triple Threat. That project came in the wake of quite a few announcements highlighting the names of a few directors up to helm the pic while it was Johnson who eventually took it on earlier this year. The film, likely bound for 2018, will mark the latest pairing between Johnson and British actor and martial artist Scott Adkins whose earlier acting career saw their first time together on the set of 2005 action drama, Pit Fighter, led by actor and martial artist Dominique Vandenberg; Avid fans of the genre might also be keen on the point in time in which Vandernberg served as a member of the French Foreign Legion.

It's an aspect of Vandenberg's life that I find worth mentioning as I go into my review here of Johnson's new movie, Savage Dog and to be honest, I wouldn't know where to start in terms Johnson's own fascination with the French military in this case as those answers remain forthcoming in a hopeful interview in the coming weeks as of this article. I will say this, however, of the twenty-seven year stunt professional-turned filmmaker: I have yet to see several of Johnson's titles since Pit Fighter, but it was in 2015 that Johnson drew my attention back with his most recent crime pic, The Beautiful Ones, which, in my opinion, is being criminally marketed as a color-corrected B-movie instead of the black-and-white noir jewel that earned the film its highly-deserved festival praise. Gladly, as much as color is not an issue here with Savage Dog, Johnson's merit and measure stands fair and firm on its own two feet here for fans curious to see if his lead star can carry his weight outside of the hotly-celebrated and popular Undisputed spectrum.

Johnson's pseudo-historic narrative sees Adkins in the role of Martin Tillman, an Irish former boxer on the run from the law whose life has essentially landed him in the throes of a lawless town in 1959 Indochina, owned and driven by a criminal organization that has taken on its self-imposed law and order municipality and using prisoners and wayward foreigners as pawns for a deadly underground fighting circuit for gamblers. With American forces looming and the town's self-made police official, Hans Steiner, looking to relocate his business and deviate prying eyes away from his own activities, including that of Harrison (Matthew Marsden) an inquisitive British agent curious of Tillman's whereabouts, he is finally freed and soon turns to the aid of Isabella, a local he's reluctantly befriended during his time behind bars. Tillman's freedom, seemingly promising at first with employment at a local bar own and run by Isabella's friend and caretaker, Valentine, is provenly cut short following a violent night that ultimately pulls him back onto Steiner's radar, obliging him to fight and keep Steiner's operations lucrative. That end sees a dark twist of fate that spirals Tillman into a violent bookend in which innocent people die, love is tainted by tragedy, honor is ensnared and the wrath of vengeance is all that he has left for Steiner, his small army, and the muscle that guards him.

Adkins has plenty of credit among those in the know and higher into the A-list spectrum as he works his way up the ladder as one of today's brightest action stars ever to light up the screen. Bearing this in mind, when it comes to Savage Dog, Adkins's depth as an actor - a continued work-in-progress, only comes as strong as his character is written as, and there's not much there to take from, save for what's implied directly in the dialogue. The role of Tillman is presented as a stoic soul, suffering from its own demons, and the film only touches down so far enough on that end while it is only until the third act that this aspect of his character finally manifests as it needs to. As something of a countet to this, seasoned thesp, actor Keith David keeps the pacing and energy at an adequate balance both on and off screen, respectively in the role of Valentine and the film's narrator; David himself lends a strong supporting show as Valentine as he helps steer the movie where it needs to go. The narrating itself initially felt as if seldom use might have made it feel more functional and inviting to the film's benefit and less like forced promulgating at times, but a second viewing ot it changed my perspective and felt more inviting.

The same can be said for the chasm instituted between roles of Steiner and Isabella, played respectively by actor Vladmir Kulich and actress and martial artist JuJu Chan, the latter whose role is solely a speaking one. Their connection is explored in just a few scenes that highlight their relationship as estranged father and daughter, focusing noticeably on Steiner's own deviousness and self-preserving intentions apart from Isabella's purist willingness and unconditional efforts to reach out. Chan's Isabella shares that same unmitigated love and acceptance for Tillman during their romantic respite in a montage of scenes that offer poignance and depth to keep viewers caring and otherwise intrigued.

In a few interviews now online, the fight scenes had been previously been buzzed as evolutionary for the role of Tillman, having once being a boxer. That angle almost immediately goes out of the window oftentimes as muscle memory kicks in during the course of Adkins's action sequences, although this doesn't exactly abate Tillman's boxing genesis. The saving grace here comes courtesy of kicking techniques are initially kept simple and less flashy - something that gradually changes by the film's third-act action scenes as the stakes are raised and footwork overall gets bigger and more pleasing. Contact is sufficiently staged next to neatly stacked hits and techniques and stuntwork mostly visible and shot and edited clearly and with clarity.

Johnson goes hard, heavy and unyielding in the film's violent recapitulation, host to copious amounts of bloodletting, bullets and gore as flesh is torn, limbs are severed and faces are shattered at point blank range. Adkins, in his action star element, is a pure thrill to watch. He trades bullets and blows with actors, MMA heavy hitter Cung Le and fellow Undisputed 3: Redemption cohort, Marko Zaror, as the pièce de résistance that action fans crave for any third act and the results here are as equally rewarding throughout, with assembly by none other than stuntman and fight choreographer Luke LaFontaine who previously paired with Johnson on The Beautiful Ones. Themes of honor and duty recur as subtext for the two big fight finales with Adkins opposite actor Le's role of Boon, a Vietnamese army commander working in tandem with Steiner, and the searing villainy of Zaror's portrayal as Rastignac, a self-aggrandized "executioner" with the fighting prowess and imposing hunting knife to boot; Said themes are worth bearing in mind as the fight scenes go underway where unconditional survival and ultimate victory naturally go hand-in-hand. The final death scene culminates as probably one of the most gruesome and grizzly ever depicted in an Scott Adkins headliner, so much so that it might even receive a nod of approval from Stallone's 2008 Rambo. The film's end attributes a quote to the aforementioned Vandenberg.

The crux of a film like Savage Dog deals notably with the desire to see Adkins shine and stand out more as an actor beyond what some fans are marginally used to. To that end, it is a slow growth process that otherwise continues in lieu of what we're offered in this film - a minimally introduced protagonist whose only real motivation for any viewer sympathy is drawn in a flashback at the top of the film for a moment that happens later - leaving the rest of the film to self-sustain via its cast performances, its fledgeling love story, the gusto of its brooding and villains and the sheer brutality of the action. What helps, by and large, is the clear-cut support of the fanbase Adkins has slowly continued to accrue in the last fourteen years, as well as his distinction as a film star whose acumen for screenfighting, stuntwork and high praise from on-set peers make him one of the most conscious and capable performers any director leading an action project would be happy to have on set.

For this, Savage Dog makes just the kind of case that keeps directors like Johnson and performers like Adkins, Le and Zaror rightfully relevant. It's a hardcore action flick that won't disappoint the niche, packed with action, adequate drama and a suitable story progression that recapitulates with every ounce of R-rated action movie fervor you could want for the price of a theater ticket, VOD or DVD/Blu-Ray purchase. For this, Savage Dog is a way more promising parcel than what we've seen in lesser-receiving feats like Close Range and Hard Target 2, and Johnson in his staunch follow-up to The Beautiful Ones, lays the groundwork awesomely for what qualifies him as one of the best and apt film directors today.

Moreover, as with Adkins, his talents as an action star make him an award-winning force to be reckoned with as he's worked hard and aplenty; his ascension to the Marvel milleu as a fighting zealot in Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange is fair sign of this and hopefully more to come. To be frank, however, it would be a mistake to neglect the need for improvement going forward. Savage Dog plays it safe and slow-burning at times while we acquaint with our protagonist, a venture aided and stimulated by the film's requisite and supplemental drama. Whereas certain scenes of drama require a touch of nuance apart from invoking expressions of anger, pure pain, fervor and even mild joy, Adkins's acting, albeit decent, still lingers with a wooden mien for most of the film.

Alas, the jury is still out in that respect and hopefully his next starring gig with Johnson in Accident Man will signal better for the star. For now, all prospects regarding Savage Dog present a promising ninety-minute exposition into a thrilling action movie made with the inventiveness and creative furor of a mindful filmmaker who more than proves himself perspicaciously as a filmmaker worthy of investing in. More to the point, as a non-Boyka enterprise, the film stands far better than what we've seen in the likes of Close Range and Hard Target 2 where calloused storytelling and clumsy writing and construction are sorely mistaken for brevity and brilliance.

Conclusively, Savage Dog, in its arrival, barks an exemplary game and sinks its tooth in sufficiently to warrant the attention it demands. The film opens in limited theaters and on August 4 as well as VoD and iTunes on August 8 with a street date pending for DVDs and Blu-Rays and I wholly welcome true fans and ardent supporters of action cinema to keep the genre above water and buy this movie where and when available.

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