Who Needs Big-Budget Action When You’ve Got Scott Adkins’s Flying Kicks?
9:12 AM EDT on September 14, 2022
Welcome to Hey It's That Guy, a series celebrating a selection of character actors and spotlighting, in detail, the under-appreciated, singular traits that make them so indelible.
I first saw Scott Adkins in 2003’s The Medallion, one of Jackie Chan’s wackier American efforts, directed by Gordon Chan (no relation), with action choreography by Hong Kong legend Sammo Hung. Adkins plays a henchman of the film’s villain, Snakehead, played by British actor Julian Sands, who seemed to be in every movie played on basic and late-night cable back then (I remember watching a lot of five-minute stints of Arachnophobia and Warlock). As is the case with many of Jackie Chan’s films, particularly when they feature European or American actors, you can usually tell who’s a member of Chan’s stunt team and who’s an outsider. In the case of Adkins, beyond the red leather jacket and the gigantic ring he wears throughout the film, you can spot him because he’s the white guy behind all the other Asian dudes. He fights Chan a couple times, most prominently in The Medallion’s climax, where he fulfills every stuntman’s dream of having his ass handed to him onscreen by martial arts royalty.
It might seem like a bit of a career dump for Adkins to be cast as second fiddle to an already-lackluster antagonist in a movie no one thinks about anymore, but context and perspective go a long way in the stunt world. Adkins, a British martial artist and stunt performer who has become “a deity of the direct-to-video realm,” as well as a fixture in minor Dies Immediately roles in larger Hollywood films like The Bourne Ultimatum, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Doctor Strange, is cut from very specific, much sought-after cloth. To those who equate status with box office revenue, one look at Adkins’s filmography would suggest he’s a workaholic day player who has yet to strike it big. But for those who appreciate the gold standard rigorously set by the stunt teams and choreographers of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, Adkins’s humble beginnings in little-known Chinese actioners like Extreme Challenge and Black Mask 2 point to a physical prowess and dogged work ethic that separates him from the majority of stunt performers who wouldn’t last two seconds holding Jackie Chan’s coffee.
Adkins has been hard at work for over 20 years, his film credits so sprawling and various that you’ve likely seen a movie with him in it even if you didn’t notice him. He is, like so many stunt actors, the epitome of “Hey, it’s that guy.” In Hollywood features, he’s often in a group of bad guys who get mowed down, or one of the minor lackeys that have a one-on-one tussle with the lead actor. But it’s worth highlighting what a rarity Adkins is specifically in terms of his career in direct-to-video (what used to be direct-to-DVD) filmmaking and his transition from a respected veteran to one of the stunt world’s most recognizable and reliable performers.
If you hadn’t heard of Adkins before, you’re likely going to soon thanks to his big-time anointing in a supporting role in the next John Wick film. Still, his breakout role already occurred, back in 2006 with Undisputed II, the direct-to-DVD sequel to Wesley Snipes’s prison-boxing drama Undisputed. The Undisputed franchise is notable for having non-theatrically released sequels that are leaps and bounds more famous than the original. This phenomenon, unthinkable in the current streaming landscape where the main players like Netflix and Hulu perform minimal curation and no advertising for the majority of their new acquisitions, was possible because of the home video market, propped up by video store clerks, DVD bargain bins, and word-of-mouth. In this arena, all manner of dreck was produced by tiny production companies hoping to make a quick buck off of tentpole knock-offs starring washed-out actors, plus the softest of softcore porn, but it’s also where many of the industry’s most talented stunt people came to play. Miracles were worked with shoestring budgets, with fight and action sequences more inventive, exhilarating, and legible than pretty much anything Marvel or DC have ever made with exponentially more money. Adkins’s role as Russian boxing inmate Yuri Boyka achieved cult status, particularly because of Boyka’s signature flying kick, deployed in glorious slow motion, a testament to the human body in motion. Adkins would lead the next two sequels, with Boyka subtly transforming from grizzled hardass to a hardass with a heart of gold.
The direct-to-video world still exists, obviously, but it’s more bloated than ever. And yet, Adkins has carved out a prolific and accomplished career working with and fighting against just about every major martial arts legend alive: Jet Li, Tony Jaa, Donnie Yen, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Tiger Chen, Iko Uwais. Some of these titles have garnered the love and admiration of mainstream critics, particularly Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, a dark, often uncomfortable, surprisingly philosophical movie with fight scenes that hurt to watch; Triple Threat, an all-star action free-for-all that’s basically a story outline with fight scenes as punctuation (a good thing); and Avengement, a mean revenge thriller that makes the Taken movies look like kids’ programming.
What sets these movies apart is Adkins, a formidable screen presence whose natural charisma belies all the macho grandstanding that normally drags this kind of thing down. He has a handsome yet extremely changeable face (a little bit of facial hair goes a long way), he’s tall in that “I want him to lift me up” kind of way, and he has a killer kick. But he is, like fellow tall stunt/martial arts vet Daniel Bernhardt, a wonder to watch when he fights. It’s not just fluidity, though there is that, but bodily control and finesse, a speed and ferocity that makes his more ridiculous moves look graceful and plausible. His brief appearance in Jamie Foxx’s recent vampire hunter Netflix movie Day Shift is easily the film’s highlight, largely because what Adkins does with his body doesn’t look like slavishly rehearsed choreography the way it does with everyone else in the scene. Instead, he jumps and flips and stabs as if he’s dancing, while saying “bro” in a hilarious accent.
All of which is to say, Adkins is one to watch for at the same time that he’s one you should go watch right now. He’s an outspoken advocate for the stunt industry and its many oversights, an eloquent, often funny expositor of and commentator on martial arts cinema history, and, more importantly, a solid screen actor. Even if he doesn’t strike it big in Hollywood the way that Chad Stahelski and Sam Hargrave have, Adkins’s reputation is assured. Besides, he doesn’t need that kind of validation. From all angles, he’s doing exactly what he’s always wanted to, working tirelessly in an often thankless industry while continuing to shed light on those who helped pave the way.