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Hipster Holy Grail: Savage Justice (1988)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Savage Justice is short, moves quickly, has some okay action, and includes enough arbitrary nonsense that it should keep your attention.  Unfortunately, those positives can't totally offset its flaws, so some of this still feels like a slog.  I think you could make it work for a bad movie night, so I'll give it a pass and even call it a slight recommendation.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5 (Novice Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

We open in a southeast Asian country that, unless I missed it, is never explicitly named.  Let's just say it's the Philippines, since that's where the movie was shot.  The government is in disarray due to a violent coup.  An American ambassador at the US embassy is quickly trying to escape while all of his underlings shred their files and get ready to abandon their posts.

For some reason, his daughter, Sarah (Julia Montgomery), is also here.  I guess maybe she could have just been visiting, or maybe the movie's trying to convince us that Sarah is not a thirty-something woman, but rather a financially dependent 19 year-old who lives with her dad.  Who knows.  But anyway, she's here and desperately packing her bags so she can get to the airport.

Alas, it's not to be.  Sarah's dad is only able to drive their car a few miles down the road before a squad of rebel soldiers ambush them and form a roadblock.  The rebels abduct Sarah after shooting everybody else, and she's taken to their camp in the jungle.

There, Sarah comes face to face with Sanchez (Ruel Vernal), the ruthless rebel leader, and Angelica (Chanda Romero), his second-in-command.  Sanchez is played very coolly and casually.  He's never quite menacing, but always just barely on the edge of creepy.  A lot of his mythos is built up by other people who hype him up.  The bigger threat is Angelica, who seems to be the one that does all the dirty work.

They leer at Sarah and imply that they're about to subject her to all kinds of nasty, horrible torture.  And you see her in a few compromising situations.  But the movie tastefully cuts past anything graphic, and the next time you see Sarah, you find that she has joined Sanchez's army.  Not only that, but she's risen through the ranks and is among his most-trusted soldiers.

Sarah's story looks like it's getting pretty interesting, so Savage Justice decides to cut away from her and introduce us to Rick (Steven Memel).  Rick is an American ex-pat who once ambiguously served in the military.  Quite a bit of effort is made to build up a Rambo-esque mystique about him, so it's possible he was some kind of special ops type dude.  Whatever.  He's a farmer now.  He lives just outside of a village with his Filipino girlfriend and spends his days doing humdrum chores.

Every now and again, another white guy who's just floating around, Doc, will show up and ask Rick if he can train some of the villagers to fight back against Sanchez.  I'm unclear on the timeline or the greater impact of Sanchez's coup - possibly Sanchez has overthrown the government and is now the de facto ruler, or possible he's just one asshole of many who are struggling for power.  Either way, the village has beef with him, and some seem to think that Rick can help.

Rick refuses, so naturally, one of the very next scenes features Sanchez coming to town and killing a bunch of people, including Rick's girlfriend.  But that's not all - somewhere in the mix, Angelica takes the opportunity to shoot Sarah and leave her for dead.  I think I must have blinked and missed the underlying scene, but the implication is that Sanchez is favoring Sarah quite a bit, and Angelica is fearful of becoming ousted from her #2 spot.

After Sanchez's army leaves, the townspeople capture Sarah, who survived the gunshot.  Rick wants to kill her, and he's not alone.  Fortunately, another villager recognizes Sarah from her days as the ambassador's daughter and protects her.  Sarah recovers, much to Rick's chagrin.

He swears vengeance and decides to go on a revenge mission to kill Sanchez once and for all.  Then Sarah tells him, "Screw you, I wanted to kill him first," and swears that she is going on the revenge mission instead.  And Doc says, "Kids, kids, you can both swear vengeance.  Why don't you work together?"

So they do.  Cue the two of them forming an uneasy partnership and going on the road to track Sanchez.

This is the first of many times where Savage Justice omits some seemingly important connective tissue.  The implication is that Sarah knows how to track Sanchez's movements and can lead Rick right to him, but there's never any explanation beyond that.  In fact, the first place Sarah takes them to is an abandoned shack in the middle of a field, with seemingly no clues as to how they'll make progress from here.

Worse: not only is Sanchez not in the shack, but moments later, three Road Warrior-styled death cars full of rebels come charging toward them.  So, what, did Sarah just walk into an ambush?

There's a brief car chase and gunfight until Rick's car is knocked off the road.  Rick and Sarah escape the ensuing wreck, but end up diving into a river and passing out on the bank.  They're rescued later by some peaceful monks, and they wake up in a temple where they're given beds and soup to recover.

Once Rick and Sarah are back on their feet, they start thinking of their next step.  Apparently, charging balls first into a trap was not successful, so Sarah goes, "Say, I seem to remember my dad telling me about a secret cache of weapons the US military hid in a shipyard around here.  Not sure why my dad would reveal sensitive information like that to his daughter, and I'm also not sure how I managed to keep this a secret from Sanchez while he was torturing me over the last few months, but, uh, you wanna go get them guns?"  Rick agrees that it's a pretty good idea.

The monks decide to help a little bit, because despite being peaceful, they also know martial arts and really hate Sanchez.  They show off some of their skills for Sarah, who is invited to choose five of them to accompany her.  One of those five - whose name I never caught - seems to be pretty highly skilled and is set up as being a badass.  There's much made of Badass Monk, so he's bound to be pretty useful to the cause... right?

Cut to that shipyard.  Sarah and the monks go to search for the arsenal, but they're caught by a group of spooky folks who control the shipyard with their own, separate army.  Or gang.  Or whatever.  It seems Sarah is trespassing on their turf, so their boss, a little person with a fine suit who keeps cackling and acts like a comic book villain, demands that Sarah fight to the death with his finest warrior.

Sarah beats the guy into submission and is about to deliver the death blow when she decides, nah, I'm not a killer.  Her defiance is about to lead to a speech about equality and peace or something, but then pretty much all she does is say, "Nah."  That's enough to subvert the status quo, it seems, and the shipyard boss just shrugs and says, "Alright, fine.  What are you looking for?"

So, Sarah cuts a deal with him.  She and the monks find the arsenal and load as much of it as they can on a warship, and the gang can keep the rest.  But while Sarah and the monks start sailing away, Sanchez's troops have invaded the temple and learned about her scheme.  Some of Sanchez's rebels position themselves on a pier/dam in the harbor and open fire on Sarah's warship.  Another gunfight ensues.

This sequence has some pretty good stunts, but there's only two notes I wanted to mention.  First, you get to see the monks fire off some heavy artillery, which is a pretty great image.  Second, Badass Monk gets into a speedboat that's full of TNT and starts charging out at the dam.  You expect that he's going to do a suicide move and blow the whole thing up, which would be a pretty good payoff to the badassery that's been set up so far.  But... no.  His boat just blows up and he's the only casualty.  So... good job?

There's a lot of carnage and pretty much everybody except Sarah is killed.  She manages to get the ship past the dam, and soon she regroups with Rick to distribute all the weapons and ammunition. With the village fully-stocked and armed, Rick finally takes Doc's advice and trains the villagers in basic combat so they can stand a chance against Sanchez.  They set up roadblocks all around the village and dig in to prepare for a final stand-off.

Also, I think Sarah and Rick might have sex sometime around now.  In a brief cutaway shot that's totally unearned and comes to nothing.  Like any '80s sex scene, really.

Back to the village.  Sanchez tries to invade, but he's repelled and a few of his men die.  So Sanchez goes back to his camp to plot further, and you get the impression that they have some sneaky plot up their sleeves.  Cut to the next day, and Sanchez goes to the exact same spot as he did yesterday, only this time one of his men turns their car around and sprays black exhaust smoke at the village.  The smoke is thick enough that nobody can see what they're shooting at, so Sanchez's men drive headfirst into the roadblock and smash through it.

(Sigh.  If that was going to be their move, why bother having two invasion scenes?  Just do that the first time around and get on with it.)

Cue the final battle.  Miscellaneous supporting characters that we've seen here and there get shot and killed, there's losses on both sides, and Sarah and Rick take out a bunch of Sanchez's men.  I'll give the movie credit for making this sequence so chaotic, as I imagine gunfights are probably so frantic and terrifying that you really wouldn't know what's happening most of the time.  Long story short: Rick shoots Angelica to death, and after he wrestles with Sanchez for a few minutes inside a mill, Sarah kills Sanchez.

The villagers win the battle, and the film ends on them trying to sort the bodies in the aftermath.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Savage Justice is a mixed bag.  Let's start with the negative this week and then work our way to the positive.

The main problem is its pacing.  Pacing is one of those qualities in a movie that's tough to put into words.  Kinda like how the controls can make or break a video game.  It has less to do with the movie's content and more to do with it's feel.

There are parts of this movie that feel like a slog even though there's plenty of action happening on the screen.  It's not the editing or the stunt work that's the problem - it's just that there's no time to breathe between shots and let things sink in.  Or you end up missing important character beats that tell you, "Oh, right, this is why I give a shit about Rick, I should pay attention."  When the pacing is off, you don't feel like you're seeing a coherent story, even if all the necessary plot points are there - you just feel like you're watching a bunch of shit happen and occasionally somebody will react to it.

To make it worse, the characters are criminally underdeveloped.  Sarah and Rick each get a bit of tragedy to motivate them and put their stories into motion, and that's a good start - but aside from that, they're basically just interchangeable white people.  There's a whole cast of supporting characters who each get at least one moment to steal the spotlight, but because none of them are given a hook (except maybe for Badass Monk), you really can't be bothered to care.

Hell, even Sanchez isn't really that bad of a villain.  I mean, sure, you see him and his rebels shoot up a town and kill some people, but there's no context for it.  For all we know, the government is just as bad.  We have no idea what his motivation or end game is, so it's hard to feel terrified by him.

Now, sure, if you go out looking for a bad movie (like I often do), it may seem pretty dumb to complain about the shallow characterization of the cast.  But I'm not asking for rich, three-dimensional people here.  I'm fine with stereotypes or archetypes.  Even bad movies usually do something to make people memorable.

Maybe Sanchez could raid the town, and then there's a break in the violence and he gives some speech like, "I see that you did not have enough food for my men.  For that, four of you will die.  Next time, we expect to be fed!"  Boom - suddenly, you've made Sanchez a nasty thief and there's a real, concrete thing we can point to and say, "Oh, man, that guy's a dick.  I hope he gets hit with a rocket launcher."

Despite all that, I still think there's some good potential to turn this into a fun bad movie night.  It has just slightly more positive than negative, assuming you're planning to watch while drinking or not taking it too seriously.

First of all, Julia Montgomery does a pretty great job as the lead.  Acting-wise, she's maybe not stellar - she does enough, but nothing special.  Physically, though, she's great.  Montgomery is believable as an ass-kicking mercenary type.  When she's doing martial arts, she holds her own.  When she's firing hundreds of bullets and diving past explosions, she looks like she knows what she's doing.  And the movie is very good about not trying to "sexify" any of her violence - it's not like she's wearing short shorts and showing off her ass or being catty.  She's basically a Jane McClane, getting down and dirty, getting hurt, and punching her way through all the shit she can.

She does such a good job, in fact, that I completely forgot she was the romantic lead in Revenge of the Nerds and other uncomfortable sex comedies from the '80s.  I went to her IMDb profile thinking I'd see a ton of other action movies, like Cynthia Rothrock's career.  Nope.  Savage Justice seems to be her only action movie, or at least, the only one where she got to do any of the actioning.  What a missed opportunity.

And while I'm on the topic of action scenes - Savage Justice does an okay job of them.  Much of the action is marred by the bad pacing I mentioned earlier, but the actual scenes themselves are copious and very watchable.  There's some good stunt work, too.  At least once every ten minutes or so you'll get to see somebody flip over or fall off a roof or something, and that's a definite plus.  Similar to Commander, what it lacks in originality, it makes up for with quantity; there's not a ton of innovation in how people are fighting, but at least there's plenty of it to go around.

But the thing that really makes this worth watching with friends is the "what the fuck is happening now?" factor.  This, above all else, is what makes a bad movie night so fun - it's the roller coaster feeling of unpredictability where you keep watching to see what nonsense the movie's about to throw at you.

Don't misunderstand me - the WTF factor isn't as strong here as it is in many classic bad movies, like The Room or Troll 2 or what have you.  If you were to weigh it out, I'd say that The Room has, say, three hundred pounds of WTF, and Savage Justice has maybe thirty to forty pounds.  So, not a lot - but enough.  Whether it's Sarah casually beating up peaceful monks to test their skills, or a shanty-town led by a little person tyrant, or a seemingly amazing monk driving a boat full of TNT head-first into a completely ineffective kamikaze explosion, there are moments in here that'll get you where you want to be.

Plus: no rape.  At least, not explicitly.  There are scenes where it is implied and some dialogue that suggests Sarah has gone through quite a bit of trauma while she was part of Sanchez's army, but it is left ambiguous enough that the evening won't be soured.  (Side note: isn't it pretty gross that my standards for movies now include a, "Hey, at least nobody got raped on screen!" clause?  Low-budget directors, man.)

I don't want to oversell the movie.  Savage Justice is not an instant classic of bad movies.  It's probably not even on the second tier.  But it is a solid enough choice, and it's pretty easy to get a copy.  So, I say go for it.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Savage Justice gets the full obscurity bonus of 50 points, as it has a scant 41 ratings on IMDb as of the time I write this.  It also gets an automatic boost of 5 points for having "justice" in the title, and I'll throw it another 15 point recommendation bonus.

I can't quite give it a "you've probably never heard of them" bonus for the cast, due to the presence of Julia Montgomery, Ruel Vernal, and Chanda Romero, but I'll give it 5 points for being Ms. Montgomery's only notable action role.  It's the kind of movie that would work well if you're being snotty at a party and you want to go, "Actually, my favorite role of hers was Savage Justice...."  Although, if you're ever talking about Julia Montgomery's filmography at a party, you're in some pretty deep hipster territory as is.  Tread carefully.

Finally, I'm giving 5 more points because the villain looks at Sarah at one point and says, "We're the same, you and I," and that's prime finish-your-drink territory.

That adds up to a total of 80 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  Pretty decent, and you don't even have to suffer all that much.

Where You Can Watch

This looks like a prime candidate to wind up on Youtube some day, so maybe keep an eye out for it there.  Alternately, you can buy it on DVD as part of one of those combo-DVD packs.  Or you can do what I did and rent it on disc from Netflix.