High Kicks, High Noon: Savate (1995)

Matty looks back at Isaac Florentine’s ace martial arts western. 

In February 1993 Mark Damon stepped down as the head of Vision International. Having founded the shingle in 1987, the actor turned mogul’s resignation came amidst a dispute with Credit Lyonnais; a bitter spat rooted in the bank’s 1988 seizure of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures and Empire’s subsequent absorption into Moshe Diamant and Eduard Sarlui’s Epic Productions.        

“This gets back to the issues Credit Lyonnais has with another company, Trans World Entertainment, which became Epic, [and] is a shareholder in Vision,” Damon told Variety. “We were trying to settle some of our own differences with the bank which had nothing to do with Trans World or Epic, but the resolve kept getting delayed until the bank could settle the other matters. I felt the only way to get around this matter… was to allow Vision to pursue its business and take a new business under a new banner that wasn’t encumbered by any of it. [1]  

As part of Damon’s exit agreement, he was able to keep the Vision name for home video use, and employed it as a subdivision of his new outfit, Mark Damon Productions Worldwide. With the formation of MDP Worldwide announced in the trades at the start of summer ‘93, Damon revealed an inaugural slate of eighteen titles at that year’s American Film Market. Among them: a pair of Vision holdovers — the Daryl Hannah-led remake of Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1993) and Dolph Lundgren vehicle Men at War (1994) — erotic thriller sequel Night Eyes Three (1993), and a martial arts western called SAVATE (1995). 

Savate was assembled as a cash-in. First, chop-socky flicks in the manner of Bloodsport (1988) were continuing to do hearty business in the video arena. Second, Savate’s eponymous brawling practice, ‘French foot-fighting’, was experiencing a surge in popularity among Hollywood martial arts enthusiasts enamoured by its idiosyncratic fusion of Gallic street-fighting, British boxing, and Thai kickboxing. Third, Damon’s pal, former Trans World/Epic boss Diamant, was gearing up to reteam with his Double Impact (1991)/Hard Target (1993)/Timecop (1994)/Sudden Death (1995) star  Jean-Claude Van Damme on the Bloodsport bruiser’s period-set directorial debut, The Quest (1996); a Universal picture that Damon pledged to distribute internationally. And fourth, the revisionist western fad instigated by Dances With Wolves (1990) and Unforgiven (1992) was in full swing, with both Tombstone (1993) and Hard Target producer Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995) readying to shoot and shooting as Savate entered pre-production in February ‘93. As far as Damon and co-producers FM Entertainment International — the outfit responsible for Cyborg 3: The Recycler (1994) and the Bloodsport sequels — were concerned, a movie that hybridised all four of these elements was licence to print money. Today, though, Savate’s modest financial success on the home entertainment circuit is substantially less interesting than its ultimate status as action auteur Isaac Florentine’s sophomore feature [2]. 

While a mere trend-tapping programmer in the eyes of Damon et al, Savate stands as a highly personal offering from Florentine; a film that reconciles his passion for martial arts, his scholarly fascination with martial arts history, and his oft-professed love for the spaghetti western. Written by Florentine and Julian David Stone — a journeyman screenwriter who, after amassing a decade’s worth of unproduced projects at Disney, MGM and Paramount, eventually channeled his frustrations into becoming a novelist — Savate is loosely — very loosely — inspired by the life and work of ‘the world’s first kickboxer’, Joseph Charlemont. Born in 1918, Charlemont was an army instructor and noted savateur whose style and teachings form the basis of the entire Savate technique. However, Florentine is more interested in propagating an analogous, mythologised version of Charlemont’s story than he is with historical accuracy. In Savate, Charlemont is represented by Olivier Gruner’s Joseph Charlegrand: an ex-legionnaire wandering the American old west in search of his best friend’s killer, Ziegfried Von Trotta (Marc Singer) — an arrogant fellow officer and feared prizefighter of German descent. Like Cain in Kung Fu, Charlegrand’s activities soon impact on the lives of others; specifically, a brother and sister (Ian Ziering and Ashley Laurence) desperately trying to stop their farm falling into the hands of a wicked, black-clad land baron (an uncredited R. Lee Ermey). The threads collide when Charlegrand learns that Ermey’s Hackman-esque bad guy (the Full Metal Jacket (1987) icon’s towering turn manages to simultaneously ape and prefrigure Mean Gene’s compelling performances in Unforgiven and The Quick and the Dead, the latter of which also unspools against a tournament backdrop) is hosting a brutal knock-out contest, and Singer’s peacocking brute is the star attraction.

Aided by Kevin Kiner’s grandstanding score, excellent production design and costuming, and the lush photography of Bernard Salzmann, Savate sees Florentine building upon his Desert Kickboxer (1992) template with spectacular results. The western licks in Florentine’s maiden voyage were largely aesthetic; here, it’s clear he’s having a ball playing in the cowboy sandbox proper (cf. Fred Olen Ray and The Shooter (1997)). Revolvers, shotguns, saloons, horses; Florentine captures every bit of iconography with flair and reverence, and laces Savate with a gritty, lived-in quality accentuated by the brilliant use of the film’s central location (it was shot at the Veluzat Motion Picture Ranch in Santa Clarita). Balletic and sensory-driven, Florentine’s direction — honed and refined across TV shows Power Rangers and WMAC Masters between Desert Kickboxer and Savate — is as potent as Sergios Leone and Corbucci; the heroes and masters the helmer freely and frequently draws from.            

Savate trounces Desert Kickboxer in terms of drama, too. The film’s characters are richer and more defined. The wooden Ziering aside, Savate’s cast equip themselves well and Gruner in particular submits some career-best work, both as an actor and an arse-whupper. Curiously, it’s in the tussling where Savate falters. It’s not that the copious scenes of beating and battering aren’t stupendous — far from it. Choreographed by Florentine, Gruner and Florentine’s Power Rangers compadre Hien Nguyen, they’re astounding in the doses Savate administers. It’s just that: they’re doled out in measures at odds with the nature of the film’s story. They appear truncated and, on a few occasions, even outright clunky. It doesn’t seem to be any fault of Florentine’s or splicer Irit Raz [3]. On the rare instances the film has been broached in interviews, the tight-lipped Florentine’s reserved responses suggest Savate was stricken with a problem that Mark Damon and FM Entertainment were both known for: overzealous editorial tinkering.

[1] Vision Head Damon has New Firm by Judy Brennan, Variety, 8th June 1993.
[2] Savate was released on U.K. cassette by New Age Entertainment in January 1995 and premiered in America on HBO eight months later, on 17th August. The film landed on tape stateside the following December via A-Pix who retitled it ‘The Fighter’.
[3] Savate was Florentine and Raz’s first collaboration. Described by Florentine as “an invaluable member of [his] team” and his “secret weapon”, Raz has since cut High Voltage (1997), Cold Harvest (1999), Bridge of Dragons (1999), U.S. Seals 2 (2001), Special Forces (2003), Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon (2004), Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2006), The Shepherd (2008), Ninja (2009), Undisputed III: Redemption (2010), Sofia (2012), Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013), Close Range (2015), Boyka: Undisputed (2016), and Acts of Vengeance (2017) for the director.

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