We are just over half of the way through the year and it has already been a banner year for action movie fans. More than just Marvel #movies audience have seen #XanderCage return to action, adventurers uncover the king-sized mysteries of #SkullIsland and an iconic comic book character finally get her own movie in #WonderWoman. Even more impressive is how good the direct to video market has been in 2017. DC Comics continued to expand their animated movie universe with its adaption of Justice League Dark while distribution companies like Well Go USA and Asian Crush continue to bring some of the best Asian action fare stateside. It doesn't end there either. The criminally underrated direct-to-video mainstay Scott Adkins (Dr. Strange, Zero Dark Thirty) has continued his winning record with Boyka: Undisputed and his latest film, Savage Dog.
Set in 1959 the Southeast Asian territoriy known as Indochina contains one of the most dangerous prison in the world, Den-Dhin-Chan Labor Camp. Run by Vietnamese warlords and European war criminals perhaps the most dangerous person there is Martin Tilman (Scott Adkins). An Irish boxer he is kept behind bars to participate in fights to the death. When the leaders hurt the people he loves he is out for revenge and will achieve it by any means necessary.
Surprisingly what sticks out the most about Savage Dog is the film's stellar cast. As always Scott Adkins is more than capable in the lead role bringing credentials as a badass and surprisingly good accent work as Tilman. When it comes to the villains I was surprised by how well written they were. Not that they got a lot of backstory but Steiner (portrayed by character actor Vladimir Kulich) is surprisingly complex and sympathetic for an action movie villain. Especially compared to the other main villain Rastignac (Marko Zaror). From the way he kills without hesitation to the overall swagger he has Rastignac is the perfect douchey villain.
If you wanted to say Savage Dog isn't the most original film I wouldn't blame you. Savage Dog wears it's influences on its sleeve with the Undisputed series and Death Wish front and center. Where it does innovate is with the action scenes. Like most Scott Adkins movies, the fight choreography is top notch with Adkins and his co-stars more than up to the task. Instead of being influenced by mixed martial arts like a lot of modern actioners Savage Dog relies on a mix of older martial arts and brutal weapon work. It may seem like a minor thing but it goes a long way in establishing the time period of the movie. By the time you reach the last half hour it is a nonstop barrage of bullets, machetes and some of the best martial arts action the west has seen this year.
Now I would never say the movie is perfect. It can feel melodramatic at points and, as mentioned, the story and characterization are a bit thin. But like all great direct-to-video movies innovation isn't necessarily the goal. Direct-to-video action movies are more about the action and entertainment and Savage Dog has these key ingredients in spades. For more killer killer independent action movies here are five of the very best just waiting to be rediscovered.
1. Lundgren vs Zombies in 'Battle of the Damned'
- Directed By: Christopher Hatton
- Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Melanie Zatton, Matt Doran
- Year Released: 2013
A major city is closed off by military blockades when a zombie virus is unleashed. With his daughter stuck within the quarantine a wealthy industrialist hires former commando Max Gatling (Lundgren) to rescue her. With time against him Gatling has to not only rescue the girl but escape with a band of survivors. Perhaps an army of killer robots can even the odds.
When it comes to action movies being intentionally ridiculous it usually doesn't work out. Either they try to ape 2007's Grindhouse style too much or are more comedic than action like Kung Fury. Very few movies can find the proper balance between good action and ridiculous scenario. One of the best to do it in recent years was Battle of the Damned. What makes the movie so enjoyable is the commitment to its bananas scenario. At no point is it treated as a joke or talked about tongue in cheek. Also for a low budget release some things like the sets and the zombies look surprisingly good. And while there is a bit too much shaky cam it doesn't hinder some good action scenes. Dolph Lundgren still kicks butt and scenes like the opening are better than a movie as ridiculous as this deserves. Admittedly it's hardly high art but with a likable cast and action better than it has any right to be Battle of the Damned is the perfect movie for a lazy afternoon.
2. A Series Reborn in 'Universal Soldier: Regeneration'
- Directed By: John Hyams
- Starring: Jean Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren
- Year Released: 2010
When terrorists take over the Chernobyl nuclear reactor Universal Soldier Luc Deveraux (Van Damme) is reactivated to face off with arch enemy Andrew Scott (Lundgren). Threatening the world with nuclear destruction he is backed by new, deadlier UniSol soldier (Andrei "The Pitbull" Arlovski). With a peaceful resolution looking less and less likely it is up to Deveraux to take down this deadly militia.
It is usually a bad sign when a movie franchise goes the straight to video route. For the most part movies with sequel potential like The Scorpion King and Wrong Turn have seen a downturn in quality. That said this isn't always the case and a perfect example of it working out is the Universal Soldier series. Its 1992 debut Universal Soldier has always been seen as a bit B-level in the action world while 1999's Universal Soldier: The Return was a box office bomb. Things started to turn around in 2009 when the franchise was handed over to director John Hyams. Son of frequent Van Damme collaborator Peter Hyams (director of Timecop and Sudden Death). No longer another cheesy retread it took a more serious turn with the franchise updating the action and no longer feeling like it was stuck in the 90's. They also added mixed martial arts to the fight choreography, going so far as to feature UFC stars Andrei Arlovski and Mike Pyle. Not only did this make for more exciting fight scenes but it went a long way in distancing Universal Soldier: Regeneration from the fun but outdated martial arts you expect in a JCVD film. For those wanting some of the best fight scenes from either Jean Claude Van Damme or Dolph Lundgren you should look no further than Universal Soldier: Regeneration.
3. Standard Bearer for the DCEU, 'Justice League: War'
- Directed By: Jay Oliva
- Starring: Jason O'Mara, Alan Tudyk, Michelle Monaghan
- Year Released: 2014
Batman is implicated in a series of abductions happening across the globe. Being tracked by Green Lantern the two discover the real culprit, a Parademon from the planet New Genesis. Realizing the Parademon's technology is extraterrestrial in nature they will need to get the help from the rest of Earth's heroes before Earth is conquered by Darkseid and his army of Parademons.
After several years it seems like DC has finally figured out how to click with audiences and critics alike with one of 2017's biggest hits, Wonder Woman. That said the real test comes later this year when #JusticeLeague is released. Having to not only introduce new heroes but set up a whole cinematic universe it seems like a daunting task. Luckily DC has already done just that and it is already on home video as Justice League: War. In less than 90 minute it does an amazing job not only telling the group's origin but also establishing the group's dynamic. Not to mention that like past DC animated movies the action in Justice League: War is spectacular. It does a magnificent job capturing the feeling of a comic book and pulling off scenes that just wouldn't work if it were live action. If you still aren't sold on the DCEU but still want to see DC's premier supergroup there is no better place than Justice League: War.
4. Michael Jai White's Best Film, 'Blood and Bone'
- Directed By: Ben Ramsey
- Starring: Michael Jai White, Eamonn Walker, Julian Sands
- Year Released: 2009
Recently released from prison Isaiah Bone (Michael Jai White) moves to Los Angeles with a mission. Seeking vengeance for a fallen friend he enters the world of underground fighting. After winning fights and making a name for himself he slowly moves up the ranks before taking this brutal business down.
When it comes to stars of the direct-to-video market there are few as good as Michael Jai White. Perhaps best known as the star of 1997's Spawn like Scott Adkins he has made a name for himself in the home video market and Blood and Bone might be his grand opus. An underground fighting tournament movie Blood and Bone is 90 minutes of Michael Jai White kicking ass like few can. Using a variety of martial art styles to look like the baddest man on the planet. Of course, this is the case with most Michael Jai White movies. What makes Blood and Bone his best film when White starts to embrace the business of fighting. It is such a turn from the way these movies and really makes for an interesting watch. With martial arts action that holds up well and a story that goes places you don't expect Blood and Bone will keep audiences hooked until the end.
5. The Kung Fu Ghost Story, 'Rigor Mortis'
- Directed By: Juno Mak
- Starring: Anthony Chan, Siu-Ho Chin, Fat Chung
- Year Released: 2013
With a failing career and a recent divorce actor Chin Siu-ho (playing himself) is forced to move into a run down apartment building. Suicidal his attempt to hang himself attracts the attention of twin ghosts. Saved by former vampire hunter Yau what starts as the two investigating their eccentric neighbors becomes a conspiracy filled with blood, bodies and a new twist on Chinese vampire lore.
Since the DVD boom of the 2000's we have seen an increase in international film making its way to the US. In fact, it was a huge factor in America's J-horror fad at the time. In recent years one of the most prominent foriegn film distribution companies has been Well Go USA. It has been home to martial art movies such as Ip Man and one of their most interesting releases has been Rigor Mortis. On the surface, it seems like a straight horror movie with its atmospheric reimagining of Chinese vampire lore. Then as the movie unfolds we see how they must rid the building of the spirits and a roaming jiangshi (the Chinese vampire). Before sealing spells are used we are privy to some top notch martial arts action. Stylishly filmed it is a blend of wire fu and horror not seen before. For those looking for a more traditional martial arts film this may not be for you. But for those looking for something unique or like a little terror with their kung fu Rigor Mortis is a movie to seek out.
The Hidden Gems of Home Video
Action is one of, if not the, most popular genre in film. Whether it is the latest superhero franchise to stylish gun-fu epics action is a universal language in film. Just be sure to check out the home video market. While they may not have the budgets or most innovative stories the direct to video market has a degree of heart to it some of the bigger blockbusters could take a cue from.
'Savage Dog' is available on VOD and iTunes August 8, 2017