Shitty Movie Sundays: Savage Dawn

As of this writing, Lance Henriksen has 269 acting credits on IMDb. He’s one of the most recognizable character actors in Hollywood history, and his steady work is well-deserved. But, he hasn’t often gotten the chance to stretch his legs as a leading man. He’s a fine and talented actor, limited in range, but he makes up for that with steely charisma. He didn’t receive top billing in 1985’s Savage Dawn, but he was the main hero that audiences were supposed to root for and look up to.

Written and produced by Bill Milling (co-produced with Gerald Feil, who also shot the movie), with direction from Simon Nuchtern, Savage Dawn is a biker gang flick whose plot is taken from Hollywood westerns.

The small mining town of Agua Dulce (played by the Veluzat Motion Picture Ranch) has fallen on hard times. The local stream, necessary for gold mining, has dried up. Miners and their families have left, leaving the community a shell of itself. That makes it the perfect spot for ex-CIA explosives expert Tick Rand (top-billed George Kennedy) to retire with his teenage son, Danny (Michael Sharrett, whom viewers may remember from Deadly Friend), and adult daughter, Katie (Claudia Udy).

Out of the desert rides the mononymous Stryker (Henriksen), a former covert operative and old friend of the Rand family, looking to settle down with his old war buddy, and maybe Katie, as well.

But, the Savages, a roaming band of outlaw bikers, has set its sights on Agua Dulce. The gang is led by Pigiron (William Forsythe), who becomes enraged when one of his gang, Zero (veteran That Guy actor Mickey Jones), is taken prisoner for assaulting a local barkeep. Pigiron vows to break his gang member out of the jail and make the town pay. All that stands between the gang and the destruction of the town is the resolve of the townsfolk, and Stryker. Yep, the modes of transportation may have been updated from horse to combustion engine, but this is a western.

Stryker isn’t always the type of hero one expects out of a flick like this. He’s got the necessary grit and the aversion to smiling, but one scene stands out. It’s early on, before audiences meet Pigiron, but his gang has ridden ahead. They spy a couple with a broken down car on the side of the road, and it goes as one would expect. The young, lithesome beauty (Elizabeth Kaitan) is screaming for help from her date, but he’s Savage Dawn movie posterbeing restrained by one of the bikers. On a cliff up above, Danny and Stryker are witness, and Danny begs Stryker to help, to stop the inevitable rape. But, he doesn’t. Stryker weighs the odds, twenty-five against one, and decides the best course of action is to ride away. Sure, that’s a wise decision, but one that doesn’t happen very often in film. Real world odds mean nothing in the world of movies, but there it is.

And that’s about the last time in the movie that we see Stryker as the typical western hero. I don’t know if it was in the script, or if changes were made by the filmmakers, but what had been set up as a film where Stryker leads a reluctant town to defend itself, becomes much more of an ensemble affair. Indeed, the main focus of the film shifts from Henriksen to Forsythe, who finally makes his appearance not long after.

Pigiron and company have a bad grudge with the town, and raid a local National Guard armory for the gear to carry out their destruction. Some major suspension of disbelief is required when the Savages show back up in town with armored vehicles and a tank, but the hell with it. This is a shitty action flick. Anything that causes a bunch of explosions is more than welcome.

The final act of the film features the Savages rampaging through Agua Dulce, and the townsfolk fighting back. It took them a bit to get going, but the locals show the bikers what’s what. The treat is when Tick Rand, wheelchair and all, shows up with a homemade RPG to blow up more of the town than the bikers ever did. There’s also a notable appearance, and death scene, from SMS All-Star Richard Lynch, as the town’s horny mayor/preacher. All of this leads to the inevitable final fight between Pigiron and Stryker, with a little post-denouement cleanup all that remains.

Savage Dawn is not that good of a movie. It hits all the right 1980s action movie notes, but it’s the execution that is a little lacking. Henriksen, despite having the charisma noted above, didn’t seem to have enough to carry an entire movie, and it was probably a good idea to sideline him after a while. It’s Forsythe, à la Eli Wallach’s Calvera, who ends up eating up the most screen time. And he relished the opportunity, laying it on thick as a glazed ham. He was joined by Karen Black, playing his main squeeze, Rachel, in giving it everything they had. The pair might have thought what they were doing were tour de force performances, but shitty movie fans know better. They were killing flies with sledgehammers, inadvertently providing the most mirthful life to a film that was always threatening to settle into the doldrums.

The Shitty Movie Sundays Watchability Index is awash in action flicks that are slowly fading into anonymity. Many are better, and many are worse. Savage Dawn slots into the mediocre middle of the Index, displacing Marty Robbins and Hell on Wheels at #216. Keep an eye out for Sam Kinison in a minor speaking role.

Genres and stuff:
Tags , , , , ,
Some of those responsible:
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,