Savage (1996): Curiouser and Curiouser

A kooky film from a kooky filmmaker — Matty takes a look…

Avi Nesher is an interesting cat.

Like fellow emigres Paul Verhoeven and Jag Mundhra, Nesher began by making critically acclaimed social issue pictures in his homeland, Israel, in the ‘70s before plying his trade as a genre-meister in ‘80s/‘90s Hollywood. Nesher then returned to Israel in the ‘00s whereupon he’d reinvent himself as something of a world cinema darling, just as Verhoeven and Mundhra were doing so in their native Holland and India.

In regards to his Hollywood output, it’s Conan (1982) cash-in She (1984); the Michael Biehn-starring conspiracy caper Timebomb (1991); and Doppelganger (1993) — a ropey horror flick notable for being headlined by a pre-Scream (1996) Drew Barrymore — that are Nesher’s calling cards, with the famously troubled production of Tales From the Crypt: Ritual (2002) bringing up the rear. However, it’s the string of action, thriller and science fiction epics the helmer crafted between 1995 and 1999 that fascinate me — especially those built around Olivier Gruner. Nesher had become acquainted with the French arse-kicker on Active Entertainment’s robo-schlocker par excellence Automatic (1995), which he scripted and produced, and the two of them would go on to pair on four more idiosyncratic programmers that Nesher assembled under his Mahagonny Pictures banner: Mars (1997), Mercenary (1996) and its 1998 sequel, Mercenary II: Thick and Thin, and this, their second collaboration and the quirkiest of the lot, SAVAGE [1]. 

Essentially a sly reworking of Timebomb with literary allusions and dollops of Blade Runner (1982), The Crow (1994) and The Abyss (1989) thrown in for good measure, Savage is a strange brew and a strong contender for the title of weirdest DTV sci-fi flick of its or, indeed, any era. Whether that’s a recommendation or not is on you. Savage certainly sits at the bottom end of the Nesher/Gruner spectrum and I’d be loath to call it successful — but it’s definitely a memorable, worth-a-single-watch experience. 

Savage falls victim to Nesher’s usual slack approach to pacing and would have benefited from a bit of editorial tightening. That said, in another typically Neshian flourish, its technical credentials are brilliant. Extremely polished-looking, Savage is crisply photographed and lensman Peter Fernberger (Automatic) captures some truly striking images amidst the neon lighting effects and Arizona locations — though as with much of Nesher’s output, the film does lack a unifying visual style and never feels like a cohesive whole. Instead, it’s a work of moments. Written by Nesher and humourist Peter Sagal (best known as the presenter of long-running radio panel show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!), there’s an unshakeable sense that the director doesn’t quite have a handle on what’s already a fairly unfocused story. As nifty as the quasi-mystical, Altered States (1980)-esque psychedelia and cyberpunk elements are on their own, they’re just that: elements. Every scene is a vignette that, ultimately, doesn’t completely connect as a well-rounded narrative.   

Still, on the plus side, Savage lives up to its name thanks to its bursts of enjoyably gratuitous violence, and most of the performances strike a chord. Gruner is wooden but game, and he attacks the physicality of his primal, spirit-guided avenger role with a sincerity that atones for his lack of dramatic guile — something Nesher appears to have anticipated, considering how little dialogue he gives him. Jennifer ‘Daughter of Cary’ Grant is an appealing foil; the weaselly Kario Salem is fun as the immortality-seeking head of Titan Corporation who sanctioned the murder of Gruner’s family (hence the Gallic bruiser’s campaign of vengeance); Kristin Minter is excellent as Salem’s sexy right hand woman; and Sam McMurry is a formidable, razor blade-wielding henchman despite his less than clear motivation. 

Savage landed on U.K. video through Hollywood Pictures/Buena Vista Home Entertainment in June 1997 and hit U.S. cassette via Republic Pictures a month later. 

USA ● 1996 ● Sci-Fi, Thriller ● 98mins

Olivier Gruner, Jennifer Grant, Kario Salem, Kristin Minter, Sam McMurry ● Dir. Avi Nesher ● Wri. Avi Nesher (as ‘Patrick Highsmith’) & Peter Sagal, story by Avi Nesher (as ‘Patrick Highsmith’)

[1] In order of production: Automatic, Savage, Mercenary, Mars, Mercenary II: Thick and Thin.

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