It used to be that action movies had some grunt under the hood, but ballooning budgets and the need to attract big audiences mean that Hollywood blockbusters have lost some of their edge. Mainstream American action cinema is tamer than it used to be; we might get the occasional John Wick-shaped outlier, but your big franchises – The Fast and the Furious, Mission: Impossible, all things Marvel – cleave to a more PG aesthetic.
But if you know where to look, you can still get your fix. The video-on-demand world is teeming with action movies of the sort that used to keep Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and their colleagues in clover. The budgets are lower by an order of magnitude or two, but if you have a hankering for some blisteringly fast and impactful martial arts actions, they’ve got the goods.
The stars of this genre substrata might crop up in more upmarket fare from time to time, but they thrive in action B-movie milieu: Tony Jaa (Ong Bak), Iko Uwais (The Raid), Tiger Hu Chen (Kung Fu Man), Michael Jai White (Falcon Rising) and especially British martial artist and actor Scott Adkins.
Who’s Scott Adkins, then?
Born in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, England, in 1976, as a teen Adkins nurtured two obsessions: martial arts and movies. Studying Judo, Taekwondo, kickboxing and acting, he landed a few small roles in British soap operas in the late ‘90s before decamping to Hong Kong after being spotted by Hong Kong Stuntmen Association members, director Wei Tung and producer Bey Logan. He soon found himself working with legendary action auteurs like Yuen Woo-ping, Corey Yuen, Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan.
There’s a better than even chance you’ve seen Adkins getting soundly slaughtered by the hero of countless films: Jackie Chan roughed him up in The Accidental Spy and The Medallion, Hugh Jackman faced off against him in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (did you really think that was Ryan Reynolds at the end?), he traded spells with Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange, and was a foil for a whole platoon of ageing action stars in The Expendables 2.
But Adkins has carved out his niche and attracted a fervent following in the VOD world where he went from villain to hero in the Undisputed series, subbed in for Jean-Claude in Hard Target 2, and even played the hero to Van Damme’s villain in the criminally underrated Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. A working actor, he’s prolific as all hell, peaking in 2016 with a whopping eight films released.
A fan and a star
To action fans, Adkins is a star, but he’s also a fan himself. He co-hosts the podcast, Adkins Undisputed, which is nominally about his work but frequently detours into his love of action stars and action movies, and his enthusiasm is palpable. An even better demonstration is his YouTube presence, especially the channel The Art of Action, where he and his guests get into the nitty gritty of action cinema: choreography, stunt work, blocking, staging, training – the lot.
What Adkins brings to the table – apart from a ridiculous physique and the ability to kick five guys to death before the first guy hits the ground – is a love of and understanding of the craft of action cinema. It’s easy to dismiss cheapo action flicks as, well, cheapo action flicks, and to be fair the shelves (well, streaming catalogues) are littered with examples of the genre that are not worth your time. But there is gold to be sieved from the muck; a really good budget actioner is home to incredible stunt work and fight choreography, if only because the coffers can’t stretch to accommodating CGI spectacle or even much in the way of pyrotechnics. The focus is on actual human performance and, as we’ve noted in our appreciation of Jackie Chan, that’s important.
Lights, camera, ninja!
Which brings us to Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, Adkins’ 2013 martial arts flick that sees him once again working with director Isaac Florentine, a frequent collaborator. Do not worry for a second if you’ve never seen 2009’s Ninja; these films are designed to have as low a barrier to access as possible, and the fact that Shadow of a Tear is technically a sequel doesn’t matter.
All you need to know is that our man Adkins is Casey Bowman, an American ninja (in fact, this film is reminiscent of the old American Ninja franchise, except it’s actually watchable). After his wife is murdered by an unknown assassin, he hies of to Thailand and then Myanmar in search of her killer, finding along the way a brutal smackdown roughly every fifteen minutes of screentime.
In terms of plot, Shadow of a Tear is very much a meat ‘n’ potatoes affair, but the plot is really only there to link together the action sequences, and those are just great. From an impressively choreographed one-shot dojo fight to a one-man raid on a jungle drug factory, Adkins is in fine form, ploughing through bodies with admirable savagery.
As a treat for veteran action fans we even get an appearance from second-generation icon Kane Kosugi, who back in the day used to appear with his father, the legendary Sho Kosugi, in the likes of Pray for Death and Nine Deaths of the Ninja. The film itself is a throwback to the glory days of straight-to-video beat-‘em-ups, but a respectful one, and a perfect entry point for anyone wanting to investigate the current state of the art in action cinema.
Ninja: Shadow of a Tear is now streaming at SBS On Demand.