There's a moment near the end of Savage Dog where Scott Adkins cuts a man's liver out and then forces him to watch while he eats it that catapults Jesse V. Johnson's actioner from "mean-spirited diversion" to "bona fide trash classic." When dealing with DTV action movies (or any arm of exploitation, nuevo or otherwise), you have to sit through a whole lot of garbage in order to get to the good stuff (though the ratio has gotten significantly better in the last five-or-so years), but Johnson's period bloodbath is a great example of a work simultaneously attempting to transcend its trappings before succumbing to them completely. To wit, we spend the first forty minutes of Savage Dog watching the picture try to play it semi-respectable, before the last 50 become a carnage bonanza, as Adkins embraces his inner Terminator.
Adkins has long maintained that his favorite actor is Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Savage Dog is the closest thing he's delivered thus far to the blueprint that made up much of JCVD's strongest early work. Like Lionheart or Death Warrant (both '90), Savage Dog starts out a pure pit fighting movie. Martin Tillman (Adkins) is an Irish criminal on the run in '59 Indochina, which has become a post-war haven for thieves, Nazis, and other assorted murderous bad guys. Tillman's a prisoner under former Third Reich gangster, Steiner (Vladamir Kulich, doing one hell of a Dolph Lundgren impersonation), who inexplicably grants the fighter his freedom after his last muddy death match (which the local villagers bet on). The big boss' henchman - Rastignac The Executioner (Marko Zaror, who fits a cheap suit and fedora quite well) - tells Tillman that they will come calling again, as the warrior now owes them a favor for releasing him back into the wild.
Of course, Tillman settles into a newfound "good life" with a local barkeep (Keith David, who also lends this "legend" his God-like voice, via voice-over narration), playing a bouncer role and falling in love with one of the local girls (Juju Chan), who may also be Steiner's illegitimate daughter. To be fair, the melodramatic middle section of the movie (which is mostly told in montage) drags on a bit too long, trying to sell us on some sort of redemption story for this stone badass. It isn't until a cocky bare-knuckle boxer (Luke Massy) starts trouble with his boys one night, and Tillman drags them all out into the bar's dirt lot (whipping their asses as a thunderstorm magically appears) that the titular beast's new family sees just how much of a caged animal he truly is. It doesn't take long for that action to haunt Martin, as it turns out the now-busted champ was one of the Nazi's newest prized ponies, and the fighter must re-enter the arena to battle his way back for money.
The best news about this set up is that it's just that: a set up. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt Tillman is going to decimate all oncoming challengers upon jumping back into the ring, causing the 'keep to bet his bar on the fight he ends up losing (or was it thrown?). The Executioner and his goons show up looking to take what's now rightfully theirs, but the owner isn't going down without a fight, and the trio of once happy ruffians are shot down in their digs, then tossed into a mass grave, never to be heard from again. But you can't kill a man like Tillman that easily, as he rises from the ashes, hellbent on revenge for the only people who loved the scoundrel. His justice is brutal and relentless, carving a path through Steiner's forces in true one man army fashion.
The second half of Savage Dog is a scorched earth face-melter, as Johnson (who's thankfully already filmed three subsequent movies with his man of action) lets Adkins mow down everyone in his path. Johnson's movie also doesn't just stick to martial arts, either (though the multiple fights - including one with Cung Le (Dragon Eyes) - are impeccably staged and cut). Adkins wields a machete, blows multiple men away with high-caliber assault rifles, and even skewers one individual with a sabre. Perhaps a Terminator isn't the most apt comparison. He's Jason Voorhees with a spin kick, as the screen becomes coated with horror movie levels of plasma.
This is what makes Savage Dog so special within the Adkins Canon - it mixes its basic martial arts template with a high adventure approach to action, all while tossing an ample amount of gruesome gore into the mix. The picture's far from perfect - beyond janky pacing, the editing is choppy, the movie peaks about ten minutes too early, and the CGI squibs become distracting - but none of that really matters once Adkins and Zaror square off against one another in the extended climax, each fighter proving why they're the very best in Western action movies. Savage Dog is a bone-crunching event that - had it been made in '91 - would've proudly sat in your local tape slinger's action section amongst the Golan & Globus greats. Adkins is this DTV era's JCVD, churning out lo-fi cheap thrills with ruthless efficiency.