Martin Tillman, the burly bruiser played by British action star Scott Adkins in “Savage Dog,” most assuredly is a man on a mission. But it’s not always clear precisely what that mission is in writer-director Jesse V. Johnson’s ultra-violent revenge melodrama set in 1959 Indochina. At times, it seems that Tillman’s overriding objective is to destroy the undesirables who killed his buddy, shot his girlfriend and generally made life unpleasant for him during and after his stint in a prison operated by an unrepentant ex-Nazi. But at other times — many more times, actually — his primary goal appears to be surpassing the massive body count of “Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning,” Adkins’ 2012 starring-role breakthrough. Spoiler: He is extremely successful in both pursuits.
When we first meet Tillman, he is rising from the rain-soaked earth, not unlike Tim Robbins in “The Shawshank Redemption,” after being dumped into a shallow grave by bad guys who made the fatal error of not ascertaining whether he actually was dead. Cue the flashback to six months earlier: Keith David, who serves as narrator throughout the film, even after his character is murdered, helpfully informs us that 1959 Indochina is “a melting pot of villainy.”
In the midst of this cesspool, fugitive war criminal Steiner (Vladimir Kulich) operates a labor camp where certain prisoners — like Tillman, a Foreign Legion deserter with IRA ties — are forced to take part in bare-knuckle brawls that resemble MMA matches dialed up to 11. Even after his release from incarceration, Tillman continues to help Steiner attract heavy bettors by taking on, and dutifully dispatching, all comers. This turns out to be a very unwise career move.
Despite Tillman’s full-disclosure warning that, “I bring bad luck to the people around me,” lovely young Isabelle (Juju Chan) falls in love with him, and philosophical American expatriate Valentine (David) offers him gainful employment in his bar. Unfortunately, Steiner seeks an unfriendly takeover of Valentine’s business, one thing leads to another, and pretty soon people start getting tossed into graves, whether they’re deceased or not.
“Savage Dog” is a good deal less than watertight in terms of logic and credibility, but Adkins’ blunt-force physicality is sufficiently impressive to make it entirely believable that Tillman could emerge victorious when battling bigger and/or bulkier opponents. (Chief among the latter: Chilean martial artist Marko Zaror, whose character bills himself as The Executioner.) And when he has multiple adversaries set against him, Tillman proves to be quite deft with machetes, hand grenades and automatic weapons during extended battle scenes that writer-director Johnson (a veteran stunt performer and coordinator) often presents in the style of a first-person-shooter video game.
It should be noted, however, that Tillman prefers a hands-on approach to death dealing. When he finally gets one of the main villains in his gunsights, he opts to lower his weapon so he can get up-close and personal. Perhaps that is not the most practical method for exacting vengeance, but it definitely is the tactic most certain to please people who choose to watch movies like “Savage Dog” in the first place.