A Valentine to Scott Adkins, King of Straight-to-DVD Action Movies

Born two decades too late, Scott Adkins could've been a Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal. Instead, he's the king of an underground straight-to-VOD action empire.

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Oct 21 2016, 1:00pm

Photo courtesy of 'Hard Target 2'

This piece was originally featured on VICE US.

Our hero stands, poised and ready, on a road deep in the Myanmar jungle. He's Wes Baylor, a onetime MMA champion who quit the sport after he accidentally killed his own best friend in the middle of the ring. He's been drifting ever since but now he's got a new sense of purpose: A group of rich assholes is hunting him for sport, and Baylor won't rest until they're all dead. On that road, two of the villains' henchmen are bearing down, piloting motorcycles right at him. There's one on either side. Baylor isn't worried. He leaps into the air and does a flying split, somehow kicking both assailants off their bikes at the same time. When he lands, he's ready to take on the next guy.

That moment of beautiful cinematic absurdity—and really, it's only a split-second—is from Hard Target 2, the brand new straight-to-DVD sequel to the original 1993 John Woo live-action cartoon. The original movie's star, Jean-Claude Van Damme, is nowhere to be seen in Hard Target 2, and the two movies don't share anything other than a loose concept. This time, the guy doing the kicking is Scott Adkins, a lean and lantern-jawed British martial artist. These days, Adkins is the guy doing the kicking in a lot of similar movies like Hard Target 2—and he's great at doing the kicking.

Action movies used to be full of scenes of glorious bullshit like that flying split: Consider the original Hard Target, where Van Damme stands on his motorcycle like it's a surfboard, jumps over an oncoming van full of bad guys, and then wheels around and shoots the van so that it explodes. But the movie landscape has changed, and two-fisted hard-R action movies are no longer much of a priority for big movie studios. Instead, those movies have gone underground, retreating to the straight-to-VOD circuit and forced to make do with meager budgets and decades-old intellectual property.

Scott Adkins is the king of that underground. In the past decade or so, he's starred in a ridiculous number of barebones low-budget brawlers, many of which are the barely official sequels to theatrical movies. He's landed those parts because he can do things that nobody else can do. As an actor, Adkins can often come off looking like a very pretty block of wood—but once you get him moving, he's an absolute poet of brutality.

Adkins has speed, agility, and ferocity, and he works beautifully in the context of an elaborately choreographed fight scene. He works best when the camera holds steady and keeps his whole body in frame, so you can see the sheer quickness and intricacy of his whole brutal dance. He sails through the air, kicks random henchmen through plate-glass windows, and moves with a leonine grace that few of his action-star ancestors could ever equal. When he does a flying backflip and kicks someone in the chin on the way up, the kick looks like it hurts.

After working for a few years doing stunts and bit parts (and holding down roles on a few British TV series), Adkins got his break in 2006 when he starred alongside fellow straight-to-VOD action standby Michael Jai White in Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, sequel to a justifiably forgotten Walter Hill prison-fight movie from 2002.

Undisputed II should suck. It looks flat and dreary, and you can tell that it was shot in some Eastern European hellhole where it was cheap to film. But director Isaac Florentine—a former stuntman himself—refused to believe that straight-to-DVD actioners must suck, so he filmed his brutal, intricately-choreographed fight scenes cleanly and smoothly, without chopping them all to hell in the editing room. With White and Adkins, he had two tough, charismatic stars who could, in the right circumstances, put together a few classic fights. Adkins was so magnetic in the movie that Florentine brought him back for another Undisputed sequel—this time, as the hero. (Adkins will return to the Boyka role in Boyka: Undisputed early next year.)

Adkins has been in plenty of shitty movies, but with the right director—he's made seven with Florentine—he's capable of greatness. He also stars in director John Hyams's Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, a hallucinatory, Lynch-ian nightmare. Adkins can be a total stiff onscreen, but he pulls the film together as the reluctant hero: a man who sees his family gunned down in front of him and who gradually learns that he may not be a man after all.

For the tiny subset of movie fans who pay attention to the straight-to-DVD underground, movies like Undisputed II and Day of Reckoning are minor classics—but they aren't going to make Adkins a household name. And when Adkins does appear in big, mainstream movies, it's in a tiny role where he never gets to make much of an impression. In The Bourne Ultimatum, Matt Damon puts Adkins down before you even get a chance to recognize him; in Zero Dark Thirty, a terrorist bomb quickly blows his character up; in The Expendables 2, he's only onscreen for a few minutes before Jason Statham punches him into a whirling helicopter blade.

This is why it's exciting to see that Adkins has a starring role in Marvel's new Doctor Strange movie. Adkins is Lucian, presumably a henchman working for Mads Mikkelsen's villain, Kaecilius. Like much of the movie, the particulars of Adkins's role have been kept under wraps— so this could even be another case where Adkins dies as soon as he shows up. But Doctor Strange promises to be one of the year's biggest comic-book movies, and director Scott Derrickson has talked about how he's added martial arts to the comic book character's mystic cosmology, taking inspiration from Hong Kong's supernatural kung-fu movies. Adkins is perfect for this type of film—he's practically a human special effect, a fighter whose moves seem so impossible that they might as well be magic. In Doctor Strange, he should be in his element.

If Adkins had started making movies 15 or 20 years earlier, he probably would've had a shot at legit mainstream stardom, similar to Van Damme and Steven Seagal. Unfortunately, they don't make movies like that anymore—not for anyone other than Jason Statham, anyway—so a good look from the Marvel empire could be exactly what Adkins needs. After all, Statham can't be the only guy on the mid-budget, action-movie block forever, and many action fans are sick of seeing directors use quick-cutting trickery to make it look like, say, Ben Affleck is skilled in hand-to-hand combat. We're going to need to elevate a new guy who kicks to the world stage—and nobody is better at being the guy who kicks than Scott Adkins.

Follow Tom Breihan on Twitter.

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