One has little to look forward to anymore—the world is dying; white supremacy pervades; our society is built on the suffering of the criminally disadvantaged—except when Scott Adkins bodyslams the windshield of a speeding sedan. For, when Scott Adkins throws his impressive hulk in the way of an escaping vehicle with such ruthless grace the car seems to stop almost out of admiration, the possibilities of martial arts action cinema come into stark relief, the visceral surge of so much movie violence felt as a natural expectation to the promise of Adkins’ physical precision. Were Scott Adkins fearlessly leaping in the way of 3,000 pounds of steel barreling down a busy urban Sri Lankan street and ceasing its punishing inertia a fair assessment of the action to be found in Jesse V. Johnson’s Triple Threat, then Jesse V. Johnson’s Triple Threat would undoubtedly live up to its pedigree. It does not; Scott Adkins tumbles from the car, his risk ultimately futile.
Triple Threat refers to the combined forces of Iko Uwais, Tiger Chen and Tony Jaa, each the stars of their own revered action flicks—which counts among its directors Keanu Reeves, whose The Man of Tai Chi arguably vaunted Chen’s star persona—and today pretty much understood to be maestros of martial arts choreography. Uwais especially, who’s lately made the move into Hollywood on the backs of his ultra-bloody Indonesian actioners—last year’s The Night Comes for Us a wonderful return-to-form after the mind-numbing Marky-marked wasteland of Mile 22 —shows up in a film like this to foretell brutality, The Raid and its sequel icons of this new era of hyper-violent martial arts movies. Meanwhile, Adkins joins Michael Jai White and Michael Bisping to round out the ensemble of dependable, non-Asian direct-to-video heavies pitted against our three heroes. Let the blunt force trauma begin!
Sort of pitched between a bloodbath in which Uwais would typically be comfortable (say, Headshot) and a lean and mean White paycheck (i.e., Blood and Bone), Triple Threat never quite lives up to either, its fight scenes never as mercilessly satiating as they could get nor its plot as brisk and fatless as it should be. Instead, a muddled narrative about criss-crossing allegiances and noble billionaires and shadowy criminal enterprises pumps and farts toward the logical climax: Our two trios meet to make mincemeat of one another in an abandoned mansion, one side seeking to protect the aforementioned noble billionaire, and the other simply working off of primeval rage. Everyone you assume will die, does—which is as it should be in a pic like this.
And yet, nothing about Triple Threat can match the majesty of Scott Adkins throwing himself into the front of a car going at least 45 mph. Johnson wisely keeps his setpieces simple—an underground Muay Thai tournament, police station massacre, car chase and crepuscular showdown all methodically raise the stakes while making way for his many actors’ martial chops—but repeatedly fumbles the pay off. When White—who, at over 50 years old can’t be expected to be as fleet on his large feet as he once was—gleefully playing a psychopath finally gets his comeuppance, the literal impact (think: sharp object through the torso) just occurs, as if the film’s budget couldn’t find some extra compensation for practical effects, or as if the film’s editor forgot for a moment how to cut together a satisfying fight scene. This is how Triple Threat works: We see everything until, when it matters most, we don’t. Like any obviously competent action director, Johnson establishes geography and spatial stakes with rigor, but then, like any incompetent action director—cough, Peter Berg, cough—he loses focus, the idea of the action overtaking its execution. It’s frustrating, because Johnson clearly understands what he’s doing. He should, given that this DTV glut is his bread and butter.
Regardless, every dependable hand here reminds why we had such high hopes for this big Avengers-style team up, and Uwais continues to hone his acting skills to better serve his quest to become a certifiable blockbuster presence. That Adkins and White are the bad guys in Triple Threat, dispatched by relatively short and lithe Asian men who bear no pretense of toxic masculinity or the signs of desperate chemical usage to transcend normal human form—this is a good thing. We must welcome Triple Threat and this new iteration of the action star. Too bad Scott Adkins tossing his big ole body into the face of an Oldsmobile wasn’t so much a guarantee of thrills as an example of spoiled potential. Too bad Scott Adkins couldn’t stop that car.
Director: Jesse V. Johnson
Writer: Joey O’Bryan, Fangjin Song, Paul Staheli
Starring: Scott Adkins, Iko Uwais, Tony Jaa, Tiger Chen, Michael Jai White, Michael Bisping, Celina jade, JeeJa Yanin
Release Date: March 19, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.