Wednesday, 22 November 2017

LuchaScores: Off the Beaten Path

I have a soft spot for movies that take established genres and transplant them to a different setting, preferably a quirky or unusual one. This is probably why I like Bruce Willis' Last Man Standing as much as I do - a transplant of Kurosawa's Yojimbo from feudal Japan to Prohibition-era Texas, by way of Clint Eastwood's Spaghetti Westerns. So, when I saw news on Jesse V. Johnson's Savage Dog, a revenge movie set in Vietnam between the French Indochina and Vietnam wars, my spidey sense started tingling...

Savage Dog

Directed by: Jesse V. Johnson
Starring: Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror, Cung Le, Juju Chan, Vladimir Kulich & Keith David 

Savage Dog is the story of Martin Tillman (Scott Adkins), an Irish boxer, ex-Legionnaire, and ex-IRA man. We first meet him in the jail of a rural police outpost where he fights in bare-knuckle boxing matches for the benefit of the prison's overlords, a corrupt group of ex-Legionnaires ruled with an iron fist by The 13th Warrior's Vladimir Kulich, and including Chilean martial artist Marko Zaror, and a Vietnamese Army officer played by former MMA fighter Cung Le. Thereafter, chaos ensues, with Tillman going from bare-knuckle prison fighter to one-man-army.


What can I say? I really enjoyed this film. Sure, the acting wasn't always great, and some of the CGI used during the fights was a little shonky, but it was great fun! The villains were villainous, the hero was... effective, if not heroic, and the setting lent it something that set it apart from most B-Movies of this type.

Looking for a moment at the villains, I can't remember the last time a movie like this did such a good job making them stand out. You expect a certain 'levelling up' in movies like this - with the hero progressing from low-level mooks to sub-bosses, and thence to the big bad - and we get it to a degree, but each of the 'sub-bosses' are distinct characters. There's the cowardly older Petain supporter who acts as the cabal's accountant, a former Spanish Blue Division killer (Zaror), an ex-SS man in hiding (Kulich), and a Vietnamese paratroop officer (Cung Le). I appreciated the variety of backgrounds, and the Foreign Legion offered a logic for why such a disparate group would be all together (something often missing in movies like this). Vive la Légion, says I! There's also a surprising complexity to them - Kulich's SS man has a difficult relationship with his daughter (Juju Chan), who is, almost inevitably, Tillman's love interest and motivation for going on a revenge spree; Cung Le's officer is just doing it to get money for his family, and even though Tillman gives him the chance to walk away (which would have deprived us of one of the best fight scenes in the whole film), he still throws down. Marko Zaror's Rastignac is the most irredeemably villainous of the bunch, a knife-fighter known as "the executioner", and represents the sternest test for Tillman. Surprisingly, as the Big Bad, he's a little bland - a generic psycho, really. Cracking fighter, though!

"Don't smile... don't smile..."

Scott Adkins as the hero is good enough. The real hero, for me, though, is the setting. The entire plot of this movie could have been transferred to a classic Wild West or present-day setting (man goes on rampage against corrupt cattlemen/rogue special forces unit/crime syndicate/PMC outfit etc.) and it'd have been OK. Post-French, pre-Vietnam War Vietnam is great, though - the lawlessness and presence of huge amounts of firepower (any film that has an MG-42 being fired from the hip gets an additional half-star in my book!) make sense! It's also much prettier than New York's mean streets, the cowtowns of the Southwest, or the nameless Eastern European countries where a lot of equivalent movies take place. I really want to watch it again in a double-header with The Rebel, a Vietnamese movie set during the French colonial days in Vietnam (also highly recommended).

Still, it's a B-Movie. It's never going to win awards for acting or storytelling. What it is, however, is a standard story elevated by its villains and its setting. It's got flaws - the pacing is a little off at times, and Tillman is a fairly unlikable protagonist. I won't ruin it, but the conclusion of his feud with Zaror seems... excessive. Fitting, given the title, but I'm not sure how necessary it was. Speaking of the conclusion, there's the vague hint of a sequel, as the MI6 man who has been hunting Tillman (long story short, his sniffing around is what drives Kulich and the gang to release him from prison) recruits him for devastation and hijinks in the conflicts to come. I, for one, welcome more hijinks.

3.5 Luchas

While browsing for more films like Savage Dog, I stumbled across Buffalo Boys which, while a little sparse on information, looks to be an Indonesian western featuring two brothers taking on the VOC in the 1800s. The initial art releases are right up my street, and I'm looking forward to seeing more about it...

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