'Savage Dog' Review [2017 Fantasia Film Festival]

While the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal is renowned year after year for its uncanny ability to identify uniqueness and irreverence in genre cinema, something about this year’s selection of films seems to lean on that idea of uniqueness in certain genres, of a time where film was more innovative. I don’t know if this was by design on the part of festival director Mitch Davis and his crew, but a lot of the films I’ve seen so far at the 2017 edition of the festival beckon to that time in film. Comedies like The Little Hours and Brigsby Bear have reminded me of a different era of comedy. Lowlife feels like a young Tarantino that isn’t quite ready to put something on the big screen. A Ghost Story was the weird, unique indie darling that defines the last few years of the fest.

Similarly, Savage Dog is the kind of movie that brings back feelings of days past for action films. It’s a movie that very obviously borrows from the sensibilities of 80s and 90s action, when the stars were larger than life and the action and stunts were cool and distinguishable. And that really shouldn’t surprise anyone. The film’s writer/director, Jesse V. Johnson, was bred in that world. As a stuntman, Johnson’s first job was on the episode of the kind of action movie we’re describing; Total Recall. To this day, Johnson continues to do this kind of work on blockbusters, but he’s also made a career of writing and directing his own work in the same vein, telling the kinds of stories that don’t get air time anymore in a world where surperheroes and franchises are kind.

The film stars martial artist and prolific action star Scott Adkins as an Irish boxer who is held captive in what remains of Indochina in the late 1950s, after the French occupation but before American interference. The circumstances of his character Martin’s incarceration are mysterious, and after his captor, Steiner (Vladimir Kulich), decides to let him go, he stays in the country and starts to work for a local tavern owner, an American by the name of Valentine (the great Keith David, who also lends his silky voice to the film’s narration).

The rest goes as you might imagine. Martin falls in love, but also falls back in with Steiner and his crew, fighting for them in a gambling ring. Just as he and Valentine plan to go their separate ways and leave the country, Steiner betrays Valentine and murders him, which sends Martin on a mission of vengeance that’s as bloody, violent and gory as you can get. Heads and limbs severed, fake blood gushing everywhere, Martin becomes a one-man army despite it being an actual plot point that he’s not really a soldier. He kills everyone who wronged him in a long third act that is basically non-stop action.

Savage Dog is the kind of movie you need to go into expecting exactly what it gives you. It’s not going to have a face recognizable to most as its star, it’s going to have Scott Adkins. It’s not going to have Morgan Freeman, it’s going to have Keith David. The effects are going to look good, but not at the level of other, higher budget films. The story is going to have really big, dumb gaping holes in it, but that’s part of the charm, because it makes it kitschy and relatable, since all that really matters is the vengeance. And where it’ll truly shine is in the action and fight coordination, because that’s exactly where everyone involved shines.

But we’re not here to give out participation trophies, or award a film just for being sincere. Those plot holes are bountiful and a sign of writing that leaves a little to be desired. The effects aren’t that amazing, but why emphasize so much on gushing blood and severed limbs?

The film’s biggest flaw, however, is how it takes itself a smidge too seriously. As mentioned, Jesse V. Johnson, and even guys like Scott Adkins, come from the same world their straight-to-video films like this one seem to want to reject. The viewers Savage Dog is going to attract feel the same way, yet the film itself can’t reconcile that with the fact that it’s never going to be the kind of movie that makes bank at the box office. While it presents this idea of a return to an old school style of action movie, it simultaneously seems thirsty to be part of the world of current blockbusters that guys like Adkins and Johnson float in and out of in order to make these kinds of films. For a movie that wistfully calls to a time where these kinds of movies were gritty, dirty, even, Savage Dog has just enough glitz and polish to be distracting. It’s clean, it’s stylish, and it’s well-crafted for what it is. And it even feels like it wants to be its own franchise. It’s as if Johnson is playing the game he knows you need to play in this age of Hollywood, all while refusing to let go of an era of action movies the industry has long since left behind. This makes me appreciate the movie in certain regards, in the sense that it doesn’t abandon production value where others will go super low budget and even purposely awful-looking to attract ironic viewers, but it also makes it uneven from a storytelling perspective, and somewhat unoriginal in that there isn’t much of a hook to the characters or their actions.

You know exactly why a movie like Savage Dog gets made. It stars just enough recognizable names to make people turn their heads if it pops up on Netflix or a VOD service. It pads resumes and makes the most of its limited budget. But it all just feels like a half-measure. I want more movies like this, but they need to be better written, they need to discover that character motivations outside of blind vengeance or inherent evil or world wariness exist. When you have the polish, and the action, that last misstep in storytelling becomes excruciatingly obvious.

All of that means that the only proper way to describe a movie such as this as serviceable. A lot about it is good, but it’s almost as if it stops itself from being great. That being said, if you’re looking for a different kind of action movie, there are worst ways to spend 90 minutes. For that, Savage Dog gets 6.5 beers I’d like to share with Keith David out of 10.