Scott Adkins: This Generation’s Greatest Unsung Action Star

In a movie climate saturated with superheroes and CGI, Scott Adkins has been quietly making some of the best action films of recent years.

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Schwarzenegger. Stallone. Willis. Van Damme. Chan. Norris. Seagal. All icons of the action genre, and while their skills may vary in terms of acting ability and variety of roles (not pointing any fingers Steven) they’ve all left a firm mark on popular culture. In a period ranging from the 1970s through to the 1990s they reigned supreme; punching, flipping, shooting, and quipping their way into cinematic history.

But then something happened around the late 1990s. Computer effects started becoming stars in their own right, and the simple pleasure of watching people punching and shooting each other fell out of fashion. Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s output started to underperform. Willis drifted towards more challenging roles, e.g. The Sixth Sense, and Norris and Van Damme were well on their way to direct-to-video land.

But while recent years have seen the unstoppable rise of the superhero movie, there’s never really been a resurgence of the action star. In terms of modern contenders, Jason Statham would obviously be top of the list, but the sad fact is there’s not much of a list to choose from.

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The Rock at one time was tipped as the next Schwarzengger, and while he has the charisma and physique, he also seems to say yes to just about anything. This results in films of varying quality that are, more often than not, safely within the realm of PG-13. Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington, and Liam Neeson turn out solidly performing action fare, but given their variety of work, labelling them strictly as action stars doesn’t sit right. Vin Diesel rarely ventures outside the Fast & Furious movies. And umm…Sam Worthington anyone?

Compounding this is the way action films have become more and more watered down, with a noticeable lack of blood, swearing, nudity, and (gasp!) people smoking. Even when a film is shot with a harder rating in mind, it’s often edited down in post production to widen the available audience. See A Good Day To Die Hard or Taken 2; not that a few curse words and blood splashes would have done much to improve either one.

Action scenes have descended into a messy blur of shaky cameras and fast cut editing. Even The Expendables, a series built entirely on the appeal of seeing action icons of the past kick ass like they used to, fell prey to this trend with the third instalment. It’s a movie where upwards of 200 people die, and not a single drop of blood is spilled.

These are dark times for action fans. They need a new hero. A man who will fight the good fight with a combination of kicking and punching, preferably shot in a coherent way. A man who will curse. A man who will maybe even do a gratuitous sweaty torso shot, featuring his glistening abs. 

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And so we come to one Scott Edward Adkins.

Who?

Now, you may or may not be familiar with Mr Adkins, depending on your tastes. Direct to DVD releases have seemingly become the place for action cinema made for grown-ups, with gems like Blood And Bone and Universal Solder: Regeneration offering action that puts their bigger budget cousins to shame. Genre fans have started to migrate towards these bottom shelf titles for that very reason, and that’s where Scott’s been making a name for himself.

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Born and raised in England, he started practising martial arts at a young age, and is adept at kickboxing, taekwondo, karate, gymnastics, and judo, among others. His early acting career saw him in the likes of Holby City, EastEnders, and Hollyoaks (shudder), before working his way up the movie food chain. He played well defined characters such as “Henchman” in Jackie Chan’s The Medallion and “Swimming Pool Fighter” in Jet Li’s Unleashed. But it was in 2003 that a key part of his career fell into place.

“The most complete fighter in the world”

There have been many great actor/director partnerships throughout history: Kurosawa/Mifune, Scorsese/DeNiro. Carpenter/Russell. And now you can add Isaac Florentine and Scott Adkins to that pile. Since casting Scott in low budget actioner Special Forces in 2003, the two have worked together seven times. And what’s productive about this partnership is that Florentine seems to get the best work out of Adkins. He knows what he’s capable of physically and is able to capture it, while also playing to his strengths as an actor.

Florentine believed in Adkins’ abilities so much he insisted on casting him in his breakout role in 2006’s Undisputed 2, despite producer reluctance. A follow-up to Walter Hill’s unloved prison boxing movie, the plot sees an unfriendly boxer (Michael Jai White) framed for a crime and sent to a Russian prison. While there he’s forced to take part in an underground fighting tournament, and face off against the prison’s reigning champ. That would be Boyka (Scott Adkins, of course), the self proclaimed “most complete fighter in the world.”

A hulking Russian brute who enjoys snapping limbs and generally being really scary, Adkins is both menacing and insanely charismatic in the role. And as a martial artist himself Florentine knows how to frame and shoot a fight scene, giving Adkins a chance to showcase his incredible physical skills. The fights are breathtaking and visceral, and after the film’s release more leading roles quickly followed. He reprised Boyka in 2010’s Undisputed 3, continuing the strange tradition of the series; turning the previous film’s villain into the new hero.

Once again directed by Florentine it contains some intense fight scenes, in addition to humanising the brutish Boyka a little. It’s easy to see why the character became Adkins’ signature role, as it gave him the chance to display his natural martial arts talent and stretch his acting muscles a bit. If you’re an action fan and have yet to see Undisputed 2 or 3, seek them out for a great double bill.

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Adkins went on to collaborate with Florentine once more on the soggy thriller The Shepherd (also his first time starring alongside Van Damme…more on that later) and silly action romp Ninja. While Ninja isn’t that great a movie – an opinion both Adkins and Florentine share – it was a necessary step to their best team-up to date.

“The man who seeks revenge should dig two graves”.“They’re gonna need a lot more than that.”

Ninja: Shadow of a Tear was released in early 2014 and acts as a soft reboot, requiring no knowledge of the original to enjoy. Adkins plays Casey, an American raised by a Ninja clan from an early age. When his pregnant wife is murdered, Casey sets about seeking bloody vengeance. As you do. While The Raid 2 comfortably holds the crown for best fights of 2014, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear gives it an honest run for its money. It’s a return to the type of lean, stripped down action vehicles that Seagal or Van Damme made their names on.

The highlight among its many outstanding fight seque is a single shot take of Casey walking into a dojo and effortlessly beating the tar out of everyone inside. The camera just stands back and bears witness, with no edits or trickery, as Adkins flips and kicks his way through all comers. A modern action flick might be able to trick you into thinking Matt Damon or Denzel Washington are formidable fighters through the magic of editing, but this fight alone proves Adkins is the real deal.

Van Dammaged 

But that’s not to say Adkins’ only notable work is with Florentine. He’s been able to spread his wings, and punch entirely new people in the face.

As far as fruitful collaborations go he’s also chummy with childhood idol Jean-Claude Van Damme, and has co-starred alongside him four times. Their most recent, and arguably Adkins’ best work to date, is Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning. The fourth (or sixth, if you want to count a couple of awful Canadian TV movies) installment in the series focuses on Adkins’ John, who awakens from a coma to seek revenge for his family’s brutal murder, at the hands of franchise hero Van Damme. But all is not as it seems.

A unique and nightmarish genre mash-up, Day Of Reckoning is what happens when you throw Lost Highway, The Shining, Apocalypse Now, and The Raid into a blender. Director John Hyams built on the positive response to his previous entry, Universal Soldier: Regeneration, and turned Day Of Reckoning into an arthouse existential action thriller. And how many of those have you seen?

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The film is a pitch black, fragmented and stunningly violent ride, and the dreamy structure rewards multiple viewings. The film’s first scene, a POV home invasion, is an impressive and haunting opening. Van Damme is very much in the background of the film, with Adkins front and centre, and he’s scarily convincing as a normal man who slowly morphs into a monster. And the action scenes, featuring a one take gunfight and an apocalyptic showdown in a sporting goods store, are up there with his very best fights.

Get The Gringo

After playing any number of angry Russian dudes (Undisputed 2, The Expendables 2, The Tournament etc) or brooding anti-heroes, Adkins got to have a little fun with El Gringo in 2012. He plays a mysterious stranger who arrives in a rundown Mexican town with a bag of cash, just looking for a glass of water. And it’s not long before the local gang want to relieve him of said bag. Which he’s having none of.

Getting to display more of a laidback, easy going charm, Adkins is a lot of fun as El Gringo’s put upon hero. In the early parts of the movie some alarm bells might ring, as the setup is suspiciously similar to Desperado, and the editor is fond of distracting farts and “quirky” title cards, but once it gets going it’s a very entertaining throwback. 

El Gringo is more focused on gun action than martial arts, with the movie’s undoubted highlight being a running firefight midway through that gradually escalates in insanity. Adkins gets attacked by some goons, then more show up with bigger guns, then more, and then a lot more, and soon the body count spirals into untold numbers. It’s exciting and a little tongue in cheek in equal measure.

Check out a sampler below…

Scott goes to Hollywood

Unfortunately, Scott’s good notices for his DVD work haven’t translated to Hollywood taking much interest. If a mainstream audience is going to recognize him for anything it might be as Van Damme’s sneering henchman in The Expendables 2. And even then, in a film loaded with icons, his supporting character is hardly given much of a chance to shine. At the very least the film pits him one on one with The Statham, even if their fight scene is a tad underwhelming.

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After playing bit parts in the likes of The Bourne Ultimatum, Zero Dark Thirty, and doubling for Ryan Reynolds in the, er, much loved X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Scott was offered his biggest role in a mainstream film to date. Sadly, it was for the lesser of 2014’s two Hercules movies.

He was cast as main villain King Amphitryon in Renny Harlin’s The Legend Of Hercules. Right off the bat this was a mistake, as rather than logically casting him as Hercules, they cast human Ken doll Kellan Lutz instead. But even with this error (and that’s just the tip of the movie’s error iceberg) Adkins still manages to breathe some life into the dour action flick with his delightfully hammy turn. And Florentine was brought on board to help with the film’s fight scenes, which gives them a little bit of bite.

The Future

Sadly, the lackluster reception to The Legend Of Hercules isn’t likely to do much for Scott’s cause as a mainstream star. But word of his stellar DVD output is starting to spread. He apparently auditioned for the role of Batman in Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and while history knows the outcome of that, it does show his stock is rising. The Raid director Gareth Evans is also a big fan, and unsuccessfully put his name forward as a potential cast member for upcoming American remake of The Raid. Which is casting that really needs to happen.

As of right now Scott is still working away, and has a bunch of upcoming projects. Some look promising, and others not so much. But action thriller Close Range reunited him once more with Isaac Florentine in late 2015, and the eternally rumoured Undisputed 4 (now known as Boyka: Undisputed) is complete and awaiting release, as is his starring role in Hard Target 2.

However, this rundown of the man’s career thus far does beg the original question: if he’s so good, then why isn’t he better known?

Maybe he’s just a generation too late, and the action star era really is a thing of the past. Maybe he’s seen as a niche actor, whose natural abilities won’t impress an audience weaned on superhero movies. Or it might simply be that he hasn’t found the right part yet. After all, how many people saw Jason Statham as a leading man before The Transporter? The One and Ghosts Of Mars didn’t make the most convincing case, but Luc Besson saw the appeal. Perhaps he could give Scott a call next?

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But whatever happens next, here’s hoping that he continues to produce quality action films for years to come. So if you haven’t heard of Scott before now then here’s the thing to do: rent a couple of the movies mentioned above (maybe skip Hercules), invite some friends over, get some pizza and beer, and then sit back and enjoy. It’s all but guaranteed you’ll be fans by the end of the night.

This article first ran on January 9, 2015. It has been lightly updated.