Even the casual filmgoer is well aware of the tiers of cinematic achievement and merit. From the crowning jewels of Academy Award winners to the ubiquitous blockbuster, every film has a level of artistry to which it aspires and an audience wishes to associate. I’ve found myself caught up in this class system, seeking cache by watching some niche independent or foreign film in an art house theater with artisan popcorn, strictly so I can drop titles like A Ghost Story or Toni Erdmann casually in conversation as I push up my thick rimmed Warby Parkers. Titles like that telegraph that I am as hip as I am visually impaired.
These films cannot be elevated, however, if not over something. If there is an upper echelon, there must be a bottom rung and that rung is the humble direct-to-V.O.D. Not worthy of the big screen, these films wait unassumingly in our streaming services for someone to deign to look at them. They are in limbo, a purgatory for the fallen angels of blockbusters past – Nic Cage and Bruce Willis – as well as those who never got to fly, like Scott Adkins. Many scroll past these ignoble offerings, but this week I took a chance on Savage Dog and I am so glad I did.
Selecting a V.O.D. title must start with a ritual managing of expectations. It stars martial arts expert and Brit Scott Adkins, a workhorse of the low budget action flick. Adkins can be spotted in the occasional blockbuster (Doctor Strange, The Bourne Ultimatum) and was one of the baddies in Expendables 2, but he’s better known for his prowess as a kick-boxer than as a thespian. The director, Jesse V. Johnson, has been a stunt performer and coordinator for Thor, The Amazing Spider-man, and Lincoln and has directed a string of low budget action movies, including The Package and The Fifth Commandment. I knew, at the very least, I would get some satisfying action with a healthy dose of Adkins in hand to hand combat, preferably with his shirt off.
It was the ambitious premise that ultimately hooked me, though. The film is set in 1959 in Indochina after the French colonials pulled out in defeat leaving a “melting pot of post-war villainy.” The jungles of South East Asia became a safe-haven for the exiled and the condemned and a lawless class system is established. Adkins plays Martin Tillman, an Irish boxer turned Foreign Legion deserter and IRA terrorist, who finds himself on the ground floor of the criminal caste system and he’s going to have to fight his way out. Um, yes please.
At the top of the film, Tillman is serving his third year of a six-month sentence in a colonial prison, the headquarters of the local crooked aristocracy run by the exiled Nazi, Steiner (Vladamir Kulich) and his fellow war criminals. With his freedom entirely out of his hands, Tillman fights for survival in ruthless man-on-man bouts that fuel the gambling economy and line the pockets of his captors. When he’s finally offered parole with ominous strings attached, he flees to a local bar owned by Valentine (Keith David), the adopted father of Isabelle (Juju Chan). Isabelle had been a beacon of kindness in the hole of Tillman’s cell and Valentine is ready and willing to give the brawler some honest work. They quickly become a family unit with Tillman and Isabelle as lovers and Valentine as the wise patriarch. Tillman’s propensity to thoroughly bust heads puts him back on the radar of Steiner and his goons and he ends up back in the fighting game with a bigger cut and an untarnished record. There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel for Martin and Isabelle, but the story quickly turns from escape to bloody revenge.
There are certainly some internal plot points that may fall apart if poked at too much. Keith David’s Valentine serves as voice-over narrator and Tillman’s thoughtful father figure who doles out sage advice to a conflicted Tillman. Valentine proves unreliable in both his narration and his advice, often contradicting himself. He encourages his de facto son-in-law to, at one point, to lean into his savage side and, later, rise above it. Then comes the motivation of the villain, Steiner - why parole Tillman if you ultimately want him to continue fighting? Without getting too much into spoiler territory, since you are totally going to watch this, Steiner at one point types a letter that takes a bizarre left turn and then never delivers it, just for it to have a marginal sentimental pay-off later. It’s a bit of a head scratcher. But the land of direct to V.O.D. is not the place for nitpickery and pedantry.
Keith David’s performance was so sincere and paternal it hardly mattered how much sense he made and Scott Adkins stilted manner was in tone with the brooding Tillman - his stab at the Irish brogue was nearly as sweet as his beautiful doe-eyes. I very much enjoyed the performance of Marco Zaror (Machete Kills) who plays Rastignac, Steiner’s right hand goon. He clearly loves playing a villain and he radiated a charisma that magnetizes your eyes to the screen – or maybe it’s his enormous, symmetrical muscles. Either way, he’s captivating.
But we don’t go to Playboy for the articles and we don’t go to a Scott Adkins vehicles for his character work. We want to see kicks and we want to see punches. The plot is a humble tree on which to ornament with audacious action set pieces and this tree has some big shiny balls. Tillman is introduced as he enters the mud hole that is to serve as the boxing ring. He is pitted against an enormous German contender with “Mein Ehre heiβt Treue” tattooed across his chest, but Tillman is not to be intimidated and hardly breaks his intense eye contact as he removes his dingy singlet. At the start of the fight, they seem fairly matched. What the German has on him in size, Tillman matches in quickness and they both deliver some wide, powerful blows typical to a boxing match. The lid is taken off, however, when Tillman gets enough distance between them to give the German a solid kick to the chest, knocking him right off his axis of evil. Disoriented and angry, the German makes some desperate swipes with his meaty fists but a few swift kicks to the knees opens him to a swift upper cut that sends a geyser of red mist out of his face. All of the matches have this brawling, animalistic fashion. When Tillman is fueled by revenge, however, Adkins more focused martial arts style comes out. The man is a machine.
The action violence isn’t strictly relegated to fists and feet, oh no. When Tillman is on the rampage, he takes a keenly sharp machete that he uses to relieve tertiary goons of their heads and hands, which always releases a satisfying spray of C.G. blood. When grenades are introduced we graduate to a new level of carnage where we get a healthy dose of head-splosions, a personal favorite of mine. Tillman even takes on an entire militia with nothing but his wit and discarded firearms in a barrage of well-choreographed gunplay. Luck of the Irish, these soldiers couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn if they were leaning on it. The best stuff really is the close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat and the final fight climaxes in the most inexplicable, impulsive cannibalism I’ve ever witnessed. Spit or swallow? Savage, indeed.
Going to the cinema can serve as a transcendent, aspirational experience. The nuanced performance of a Stanislavski trained actor or the sheer luxury of a flawlessly executed, seamless C.G. action scene helps us feel worthy of the highest caliber of art and technology, but it is the direct-to-V.0.D. movie that understands us better than any multimillion dollar masterpiece. It knows we want to see Scott Adkins kicking Nazi butt, looking all burly. Dare to dream, cinemagoer! Celebrate your Oscar bait, and get excited for the next big-budget Superhero sequel, but leave a little room in your heart for Savage Dog. Because sometimes it is the scrappy, straight to V.O.D. charmer that knocks you right on your ass and makes your evening.