20 years ago today, Teddy Chan’s The Accidental Spy hit theaters. Within star Jackie Chan’s illustrious filmography, the film is usually considered a minor entry, but it’s momentous for an entirely different reason: it marks the film debut of English martial artist and actor Scott Adkins (Stephen Tung Wai’s Extreme Challenge was technically filmed first, but Accidental Spy had the earlier world premiere). Although Adkins’ role is of the in-the-background, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety, this early instance of getting-one’s-foot-in-the-door proved to be historic, as it kicked off the film career of one of contemporary cinema’s greatest screen fighters. In the years immediately following this debut, the actor slowly but surely worked his way into the spotlight, demonstrating his physical prowess on the sidelines until his role in 2006’s Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, which jump-started the Adkins cult in earnest. Although he technically plays the villain in that film, Adkins is the one who commands the screen as Russian prison fighting champion Yuri Boyka.
In that film—as well as the two, even better sequels—we see the Adkins appeal distilled into its purest form: insane athleticism that mixes the fleet-footed acrobatics of Hong Kong greats like Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Jet Li with the ’80s hard-body aesthetic of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. In many ways, Adkins is comparable to Jean-Claude Van Damme, who also married muscles with martial arts. That said, whereas Van Damme seems to split the difference between beauty-in-motion and beauty-in-stasis—between dynamic physicality and the static, sculptural grandeur of the bodybuilder’s pose—Adkins’ stardom has primarily revolved around a workmanlike doing: ambitious stunts, complex choreography, a headlong rush into brute force movement.
A workman’s dedication characterizes Adkins’ career as a whole, which, despite never quite achieving mainstream recognition, has nonetheless thrived on the direct-to-video (DTV) circuit. He starred in five films in 2020, and four the year before. Also in 2020, he debuted a YouTube series titled “The Art of Action,” in which he interviews various icons of the action genre—past guests have included Cynthia Rothrock, Chad Stahelski, and Dolph Lundgren—to the delight and edification of fans worldwide. As not just a world-class action star but an advocate for and teacher of “the art of action,” Adkins has become an invaluable presence not just onscreen but in the action community more generally.
It is toward appreciating the breadth of Adkins’ filmography that this piece has been conceived. This introduction has focused heavily on Adkins and his specific appeal; having done this, I will, for the rest of the article, consider more holistically the films in which the actor has starred. With this goal in mind, I wanted to offer a few clarifications before diving in:
All titles featured in the ranking are films in which Adkins plays a leading role (i.e., not those instances of false advertising in which the guy’s face is blazoned across promo materials despite appearing only in a few scenes). Calling anything else a “Scott Adkins film” would’ve felt disingenuous, although some of the omissions (e.g., Wolf Warrior) only narrowly missed being included.
Ross Boyask’s Pure Vengeance might very well have fit the requirements, but because it doesn’t seem to be available for public viewing, I unfortunately had to disqualify it as well.
The ranking is not based on the quality of Scott Adkins’ performance in these films, but the quality of the films overall (which, granted, often owes a lot to Adkins).
And now, without further ado, I present to you the films of Scott Adkins, ranked:
“I’ve seen enough shaky camerawork to last me a lifetime.”
It’s funny that this cheekily self-referential line (Adkins, along with sundry fighter/stuntmen peers, have been known to bristle at obscurantist filmmaking that masks the extent of their skills) appears in a film where the actor tussles just once, and sans any display of martial arts prowess. In fact, Adkins is cast completely and amusingly against-type, playing the role of the environmentalist pacifist who seeks to capture rare creatures alive for the purposes of research and preservation. Expanding one’s horizons is all well and good, but the territory into which he’s “expanded” feels triter and more constricting than anything he’s done before. A knockoff of every other Jurassic Park knockoff that came before it, Legendary has not one inspired bone in its anemic body, which comprises mainly a rehash of trite roles (the trigger-happy gun for hire! The kindred environmentalist spirit and love interest! The young protégé! The silver-tongued businessman!), plodding plot beats, and shoddy CGI that feels “bad” in the worst way possible—i.e., lacking the surreal zaniness of a Brett Leonard or Tsui Hark picture, simply the eye-sore of failed Hollywood photorealism.
30. Dead Reckoning
Like with Legendary, Dead Reckoning places low on this list not so much for “failing” spectacularly (many such “failures” are often borderline avant-garde works that are a critical reappraisal away from being hailed a “masterpiece”), but, rather, for an insipid adherence to convention that fails to succeed even within those narrow parameters. Dead Reckoning is, at least, watchable. The seaside summer romance between the two pretty leads has the breezy nothingness of a basic-cable TV pilot, and Adkins, playing the bad guy, gets to throw up his fists a couple times. It is in Adkins’ character—complete with a hilariously hammy Albanian accent and a terrorist plot to blow up a beach’s worth of American spring breakers—that the film flirts with a more vulgar, idiosyncratic version of itself. Alas, the movie plays it safe (read: bland), especially with an ending so bizarrely, incongruously neat that it almost (not quite, but almost) undermines its own neatness.
29. Ip Man 4: The Finale
Every single entry of the Donnie Yen Ip Man movies—including and especially the Yuen Woo-ping-helmed spinoff Master Z: Ip Man Legacy—has had good action, and Ip Man 4: The Finale is no exception. That said, “good” in this case is purely a matter of technique—of convincing-looking hits, clear visual framing, and so forth—rather than creative staging or dynamic variation. The result is a film whose ostensibly “strong” set pieces blur together and become numbingly repetitive, an experience exacerbated by the trite, plodding melodrama that occurs in between fights. Here’s a film best enjoyed in pieces—an individual fight scene watched on YouTube, for instance—rather than in its full duration.
28. Home Invasion
As a riff on Panic Room and other home invasion thrillers structured around the spatial layout of suburban houses, strategies of surveillance and counter-surveillance, and the cat-and-mouse games that ensue, Home Invasion works well enough. Adkins gets to chew some scenery as the snarling, irascible villain, and there are some genuinely tense set pieces, chief of which is an attempted escape via garage. The film fails to expand upon its premise as much as it could’ve—e.g., rather than creatively varying how characters engage with and move through the (largely) single-location setting, a whole third of the film is dedicated to a one-note stretch of sneaking-around-the-house—but, as passable entertainment for a rainy day, the overall effort is competent.
I am of the belief that an Adkins and Neveldine/Taylor collaboration would be baller, given the former’s adeptness at channeling deranged macho energy and the latter’s vulgar, hyper-kinetic filmmaking style. At their intersection lies the promise of some truly visceral and crazy chaos cinema. In some respects, Seized seems to be a step in this direction. Its premise of an action hero “forced” to commit morally questionable acts (which functions on some level as a cathartic outlet for audience members who can’t do the same in real life) feels like a tamed riff on Crank, and the film’s flirtation with an intriguing, potentially self-reflexive multimedia aesthetic (as Adkins’ hero lays waste to a bunch of gangsters, his quest is live-streamed to an audience of bloodthirsty spectators, and, at points, what seems like actual first-person-shooter footage is used to evoke how he appears on the screens of these diegetic viewers) also ropes in Gamer as a potential reference point. This premise devolves into a somewhat shoddy-looking, averagely shot and choreographed DTV actioner, but the semi-provocative ideas do add a small kick to the proceedings.
26. The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud
Its slightness is both its weakness and strength: sans any apocalyptic stakes, the film tells of a girl who becomes literally trapped in the game she’s playing, thus requiring her friend on the outside to “play” her and beat the game so that she can be freed. With a synth-and-neon aesthetic riding the tail end of the ’80s pop culture craze that peaked a couple years ago, Max Cloud feels like a one-off program that, if not for the periodic bursts of amusingly R-rated violence, one might find airing on Nickelodeon. Within these modest parameters, the film generally succeeds. The cast is charming, as is the repartee; the production design, though clearly executed on a budget, is overall effective, crafting a visual aesthetic that allows and even embraces a degree of tackiness. One of the smartest—and simultaneously most frustrating—instances of budget-minding rests in the decision to cut away from live-action fights happening “in the game” to the gamer’s view of pixelated characters on a screen. Here, narrative continuity is served with a side of comic understatement, but, this being an Adkins film, one can’t help but wish that we saw him in action more, especially given the greatness of what we are shown—case in point: a genuinely exciting, faux-single-take fight boasting impressively clean action coverage.
25. Assassination Games
Downbeat beatdowns. The first of three collaborations between Adkins and Jean-Claude Van Damme on this list, Assassination Games stands out on account of its intense and unrelenting bleakness. Opening with a Nietzsche quote and a throat-slitting, the film indulgently wallows within a garish gloominess: washed-out sepia colors, sleazy gangsters, and glacial pacing that forces us to absorb the miasma of bone-deep pessimism. Even as the film’s dour atmosphere courts dullness, there’s something compelling about watching two DTV action stalwarts go full grimdark, seeming to enter an alternate universe closer to arty Eurocrime than the goofier, more cartoonish fare for which they are usually known. For me, Assassination Games pushes its miserabilism too far, especially when it starts victimizing women in ways that feel ugly and retrograde, but the overall project marks a (for lack of a better word) “refreshing” stylistic departure.
24. Debt Collectors
Adkins and Louis Mandylor play hired muscle tasked with squeezing payments out of debtors, a quest that takes them into various corners of the American criminal underworld. The buddy road-movie setup is simple but ingenious, as it allows director Jesse V. Johnson to build and explore an expansive narrative world via its characters’ itinerancy. Meanwhile, the uncertainty of what awaits our protagonist pair at each new stop generates suspense. Provided Johnson can creatively vary what sort of criminal types the duo encounter and what kinds of spaces they enter, this premise can be easily sustained for another two or three movies. Debt Collectors is a weaker film than its predecessor—it aims for macho, Tarantino-style talkiness but lacks the script to back it up, and the ending peters out with a by-the-numbers gunfight—but the central concept remains sterling, and the sequel tops the first movie in one regard: clean, bruising barroom brawls that play to Adkins’ (literal) strength.
Few premises are more evergreen than the man-on-the-run paranoid thriller that pitches both hero and viewer into a web of international intrigue. The first half or so of Eliminators continues this tradition well, strategically keeping us in the dark about what’s going on and only gradually feeding us morsels of exposition. The action scenes are largely solid, opting for wider framing that lets Adkins show off his fighting technique, and the customary (and welcome) dose of neon contributes a neo-noir vibe. Occasionally, the style feels genuinely inspired: one of the film’s most thrilling moments involves a nighttime drone shot circling around a lit-up cable car, within which a brawl is taking place. The film plateaus in its final stretch, with the (albeit still competent) action choreography growing repetitive, but as a low-key stylish entry within a reliable genre mold, Eliminators is a commendable effort.
Isaac Florentine, Power Rangers alum and purveyor of an expressive, emphatic, Hong-Kong-influenced filmmaking style, is the perfect director for a de facto comic-book movie, and real-world superhero Adkins is his perfect leading man. The film’s biggest weakness is its plot, which spends too much time wallowing in what is, at best, vaguely interesting genre iconography and ninjitsu lore; one shouldn’t be growing bored with a film this fundamentally silly. That said, narrative slumps routinely find themselves re-energized by vigorous action scenes. Florentine likes to shoot set pieces using a wide-angle lens, such that onscreen space seems to elongate into depth. The distance between foreground and background is exaggerated, with movements along this z-axis appearing to travel farther than they normally would; appropriately, much action is staged in the direction of the camera, seeming at points to almost crash into the lens. The camera itself often races and whips around, and slo-mo is used to accent particular hits or stunts. Sometimes, the film’s baroque style distracts from the flow of the action choreography, but, more often than not, it seems to supercharge the onscreen space, lending it the exclamatory force of a splash panel.
21. Accident Man
Adkins himself has observed that the character he plays in Accident Man—a quippy, sardonic hitman who specializes in staging murders to look like accidents—is closer to his own personality than the scowling, brooding roles to which he’s typically given. Indeed, a big part of what makes Accident Man fun is that it showcases a breezier side of Adkins, all while still delivering the usual main attraction in spades: a steady stream of lucidly shot, stunts-heavy beatdowns that gives not only Adkins but fellow martial artist/stars like Amy Johnston, Michael Jai White, and Tim Mann (who doubles as the film’s fight choreographer) room to show off. Flaws do abound: the humor itself is a bit hit-or-miss (sometimes acquiring a grating, self-satisfied air and occasionally tipping over into misogyny); an unnecessary flashback sequence bogs down the film’s middle section; and the fighting sometimes feels as if actors are half-heartedly running through the choreography rather than selling each hit. That said the film’s energy and sheer muchness—even when a particular action scene underwhelms, another is right around the corner to make up for it—ensures the whole package remains consistently entertaining.
20. Jarhead 3: The Siege
Like a DTV 13 Hours, this nominal sequel to Jarhead 2 (itself a nominal sequel to the original Jarhead) serves up a familiar paean to American military heroism seasoned with largely-tokenistic-but-occasionally-interesting dollops of nuance (e.g., having one army character be overtly xenophobic so that the main character looks more acceptable by comparison). Geopolitical murkiness aside, the film is a sturdy, guns-a-blazin’ actioner that sees Adkins, playing a tough-as-nails sergeant, replacing fists with a high-powered sniper rifle. As enemy combatants swarm the U.S. embassy that is the film’s main setting, director William Kaufman smartly breaks down the larger siege narrative into a series of micro-objectives that add variety to the single-location premise, and the tight script—whose macho frat-boy patois has a borderline musical cadence even as it courts hoo-rah excess—keeps things engaging in between firefights.
19. Legacy of Lies
Legacy of Lies is, in many ways, a stronger, more stylish version of Eliminators. Its pacing is more patient, and it’s more willing to leave plot points open-ended (the coda suggests a possible sequel, fingers crossed). It lathers on genre atmospherics more thickly, through both mise-en-scène choices (there is, as with Eliminators, a healthy helping of neon) and tried-but-true plot beats that function as shorthand for “stylish, moody crime thriller”: the haunted protagonist who participates in underground boxing matches as a form of personal penance, the retired government operative brought back for one last job, the nightclub shootout, the requisite hand-to-hand fight between two evenly matched spies, etc. It’s all very familiar, but if it ain’t broke…
If Incoming didn’t commit the cardinal sin of capturing Adkins’ fight scenes using cuts-galore, obscurantist, post-Bourne shaky cam, it would’ve placed much higher on this list. Especially given the film’s limited budget, the setup is gold: the ragtag crew of a small spaceship face off against a group of escaped prisoners who seize control of the vessel. The confined setting means that the mise-en-scène can be (and was) spruced up on a limited budget (simple but neat production design choices include strips of neon on the walls and rotating turbines that cast expressionistic shadows) and also imposes a creative constraint that forces filmmakers to—in a fun parallel with the characters’ own strategizing—figure out how to make innovative use of the space. The result is a fast-and-tight thriller that hinges on the maneuvering and counter-maneuvering of opponents à la a life-and-death chess game.
17. The Shepherd: Border Patrol
Playing a haunted border patrol agent tasked with disrupting local cartel activity, Van Damme is the star of the show, but Adkins’ no-nonsense, whip-fast evil henchman makes enough appearances to warrant inclusion on this list. With these two action titans onscreen and Isaac Florentine in the director’s chair, it’s a bit of a disappointment that the final third of the film feels so sluggish (although this sluggishness does sometimes become strangely hypnotic). That said, the film as a whole is repeatedly enlivened by flashes of Florentine’s forceful action style. The best scene: a brief but beautifully furniture-destroying bar fight in which Van Damme’s mysterious-loner equanimity snaps via a terse showcase of combat prowess.
Avengement strives—largely successfully—to realize one endpoint of Adkins’ mystique: the deranged human beast who brings graceful martial arts form into the macho realm of no-holds-barred street fighting. Sporting a face riven with acid burns and gashes and a mouth full of gold teeth, Adkins plays a prison-hardened fighter seeking revenge against those who, in leaving him to die, turned him into a mangled Frankenstein’s monster. Some parts of Avengement are too clunky (the film’s evident verbal relish, for example, could’ve benefitted from a sharper script) whereas others are too clean (although the prison fighting scenes are admirably gnarly, they could’ve been even gnarlier), but the film’s general ethos of crazed ferocity is a perfect fit for Adkins, and the thundering climax is one of the most cathartic action scenes of his career.
15. Triple Threat
The murderer’s row of martial arts stars in Triple Threat makes the film one of the greatest crossover events in recent memory; a big part of the movie’s pleasure lies simply in watching the who’s who of contemporary DTV action get shuffled around in a pseudo round robin—Tiger Chen versus Iko Uwais, Uwais versus JeeJa Yanin, Adkins versus both Uwais and Tony Jaa, Uwais versus Michael Jai White, and so on. Of course, the film wouldn’t have worked if the action itself didn’t deliver, but, thankfully, it does. Director Jesse V. Johnson brings a less precise, less punchy style than contemporaries like Isaac Florentine and The Raid’s Gareth Evans, minimizing emphatic close-ups and whip-pans in favor of wobbly handheld camerawork that imbues fights with a sloppier, scrappier feel. This rough-hewn aesthetic periodically hampers enjoyment of the often-excellent fight choreography but, more often than not, lends the action a bracing physicality.
14. Hard Target 2
The first half hour of this is one of the strongest openings of any film on this list. Kicking off with a stylish homage to the original, John-Woo-directed Hard Target (a hunt occurring in media res, the presence of birds, a fired arrow morphing elegantly into the film’s title text), Hard Target 2 hits tried-and-true character beats that set up Adkins as a guilt-ridden fighter who’s fallen from grace, all while milking this premise to show our man in action as many times as possible. We see a boxing match between Adkins’ character and his sparring partner, in which the latter is accidentally killed; and, afterwards, a montage of our haunted hero fighting in various off-grid arenas ranging from mud-caked earth to chic penthouse patio. The action is clean and bruising; the character arc is familiar like comfort food; and the locale-hopping offers a sense of a stylish and expansive criminal underworld. The rest of the film doesn’t fully live up to this opening, but the main narrative event—a jungle hunt that has Adkins’ playing prey to bloodthirsty patrons who’ve paid to kill him for sport—is still loads of fun, delivering a steady stream of action anchored by hearty stuntwork and practical effects.
13. Undisputed II: Last Man Standing
The “Scott Adkins” phenomenon began here. Although Michael Jai White is technically the main character, he’s upstaged by a certain, tattooed Russian opponent who moves with a dexterity not seen since the heyday of Hong Kong action cinema. Kip-ups, backflips, and other acrobatics are executed with seeming ease, but the bulging muscles (accentuated through sundry scenes of shirtless combat) and bloody, bone-shattering blows convey a brute-force, hard-body aesthetic that departs from the sprightliness of a Jackie Chan or a Jet Li. Jean-Claude Van Damme or Jason Statham are better points of reference—muscles meet dancerly grace—but I doubt either has ever completed such complex choreography as captured by a camera so generous: director Isaac Florentine, knowing who the main attraction is, keeps framing wide and shots long so that the spectacle of a Herculean body arcing, twisting, and pounding opponents’ flesh can be seen in its glorious entirety.
12. Ninja: Shadow of a Tear
Ninja: Shadow of a Tear is, in many ways, the ideal Adkins-Florentine collaboration. There’s a smorgasbord of action, with fight scenes dropping every scene or two and spanning the gamut from street fights to bar fights to dojo sparring to ringing bladework. The action itself ranks consistently at the top of both artists’ work, comprising painful-looking stunts (the use of chairs, tables, and countertops in a barroom brawl is Hong-Kong-caliber) and the lucid, show-as-much-as-you-can filmmaking style that Florentine has refined over the year. The reason the film doesn’t place higher is that the plot between set pieces drags a bit, and the choreography does get repetitive. That said, as an exemplar of purified action technique that sees both director and star firing on all cylinders, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear is something close to a genre classic.
11. The Legend of Hercules
A green-screen sword-and-sandals epic in the vein of 300, Immortals, and Pompeii, The Legend of Hercules wears its CGI on its sleeve and is all the more compelling for it. The ostentatious digital touches (snow, for example, appears as texture-less white dots clearly drawn in some paint program) imbue the film’s mythic milieu with an otherworldly dreaminess, while the bursts of forceful, stunts-driven physicality (e.g., a muscle-bound body suspended in slow-motion, weapon raised for the kill) stave off total weightlessness. It’s all very derivative but also agreeably melodramatic, mixing practical and digital effects to generate baroque spectacle that’s more interesting than many, more commercially and critically successful blockbusters.
This ultra-cheap, ultra-dorky sci-fi actioner is quite possibly the shoddiest-looking Adkins film to date, but it works this “shoddiness” to its advantage, using third-rate VFX to infuse every scene with seismic levels of surrealism and chaotic energy. Our introduction to Adkins’ character captures the feel of the film well: after tussling with three mind-controlled soldiers wielding what looks like store-bought props, he is kicked through a portal, robbed of his memory, and left wandering around the streets of Vietnam with a violent stutter and an obnoxious graffiti print jacket. It’s all deeply absurd and heaps of fun for that reason, an experience made even better thanks to the presence of clean, nimble fights (in this department, Adkins actually plays second fiddle to star Andy On, who lands an abundance of killer moves).
9. The Debt Collector
One of the best team-ups in contemporary DTV began here. Though less ambitious in its action scenes than its sequel, The Debt Collector’s scrappy, improvisatory rhythm fits its tale of a financially pressed martial artist (Adkins) who gets more than he bargained for when he takes up the eponymous gig. Tight and satisfying though the fisticuffs still are, the set pieces are subsumed into the film’s larger tone of chaotic bewilderment; this vibe underpins the dialogue as well, which largely revolves around the Adkins and Mandylor characters bickering with each other in the face of (first comically then tragically) mounting mishaps. As the former’s exasperated pugnacity and the latter’s lazy, world-weary composure clash and dovetail with each other, an enduring buddy dynamic emerges.
8. Savage Dog
If Isaac Florentine’s forte lies in an almost cartoonish, comic-book-inspired sense of power—whip-pans, whooshing noises, punchy close-ups, slo-mo—Jesse V. Johnson thrives in the thwack of bare knuckles on flesh; spraying gore; and the crack of split bone. In this sense, Savage Dog, whose title fits the film it adorns, is one of Johnson’s best (alongside his most recent release The Mercenary, which functions like something of a spiritual sequel). It abounds with scenarios that let both Johnson and Adkins show off their strengths, from no-holds-barred pit fights to bloody bladework to high-powered, John-Woo-style shootouts in which entire rooms are shredded beneath a hail of bullets.
7. Green Street Hooligans: Underground
Green Street Hooligans: Underground, a sequel to the previous entries of the eponymous series only in name, sees Adkins playing a former football “hooligan” back in town to investigate the murder of his younger brother. Partially as a cover for his investigations, our hero takes up a side project of beating his old firm-mates back into shape so that they can win an annual fighting tournament between firms, which has been set up as an alternative to open brawling within increasingly police-monitored public spaces. At once an underdog fight movie, a murder mystery, a synth-driven mood piece, and a portrait of the atavistic, tribalist violence that underpins modern “civilized” society, Underground is both stylish and fierce, a vehicle of cool that brings it all home with a beatdown in the mud.
6. El Gringo
Had this not ended with a disappointingly action-less denouement, it might’ve placed even higher on this list, so thrillingly kinetic are its best sequences. Featuring an appealingly pared-down premise—there’s a bag full of money that everyone’s trying to get—El Gringo bursts with baroque, post-MTV hyperactivity of the sort that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Neveldine/Taylor joint or a late ’90s/early ’00s Tsui Hark picture. At one point, the “camera” zips impossibly “through” a tiny bullet hole, giving the impression of an infinitely malleable onscreen space; at another, the pace of editing quickens to nearly seizure-inducing levels, as if the film itself were on the verge of breaking down. These effects, which are modulated enough so that we are largely still able to orient ourselves within action scenes, generate an aesthetic of sensory assault that, especially when rhythmically synced to fighter’s attacks (e.g., a cut occurring right as someone is getting punched), delivers a singular jolt.
5. Special Forces
One of Isaac Florentine’s cleanest, leanest movies to date, Special Forces delivers a complete, action-packed introduction to its eponymous squad and establishes the central hostage-rescue premise by the twenty-minute mark, leaving a full hour of no-nonsense tactical maneuvering. The most thrilling maneuvers occur, unsurprisingly, in the thick of action: via Florentine’s wide, generous framing that lets us see guns fired and targets struck within the same shot, the geography of the space is made thrillingly three-dimensional, such that the violence feels weightier and seemingly more strategic. The hand-to-hand combat also pops, thanks to a Hong-Kong-style mix of punchy inserts, center-framing of key actions, and spectacular stuntwork; in this department, a young Adkins, playing a British ally to the central American team, rounds out the film’s climax with one of the best fights of his career.
4. Undisputed III: Redemption
Adkins’ “most complete fighter” Yuri Boyka is, smartly, now the main character, let loose within the foolproof narrative device of the fighting tournament. Structured around a match-up between a thrillingly varied array of martial arts styles (boxing, capoeira, Taekwondo, etc.) and a genuinely sweet (b)romance between Boyka and one of the other fighters (at one point, one gives the other literal flowers for “medicinal” purposes), Undisputed III deploys Florentine’s usual visual flourishes (e.g., objects moving emphatically toward or away from the camera with whooshing sounds in accompaniment) but with greater restraint, ceding the spotlight to the stunt performers and the fight choreographers. The result is a jaw-dropping, Olympian showcase of raw physicality, a collection of long, steady shots that capture the spectacle of clashing, flipping, and interlocking bodies with extraordinary clarity.
3. Close Range
Although Boyka is the “most complete fighter,” Close Range is probably the most complete action film on this list in the sense that it covers all the usual bases: not just hand-to-hand combat but thundering gun battles and a stretch of vehicular action in the middle. And it makes its home run at a sprint—the film is just 80 min long—and with near-impeccable form. The bruising throwdowns (which occur everywhere from a kitchen to an office building to the middle of the desert) are among the cleanest of Florentine’s career, and the shootouts (which, like with Special Forces, are often staged into depth and involve kills being completed within a single shot, third-person-shooter-style) are powerfully immersive. Close Range is a work of tight, propulsive craft that marks the Florentine-Adkins collaboration at the peak of its powers.
2. Boyka: Undisputed IV
The action in Undisputed IV matches that of the other two films (the highlight here being a two-against-one face-off), but the film introduces a couple elements that makes it, for me, the most satisfying entry in the series. The first is that set pieces are distributed more evenly across the film’s runtime, and they are scaled in such a way that shifts in the size and complexity of the action map onto classical narrative arcs and rhythms. From the standpoint of story/set-piece synergy, Undisputed IV excels. Secondly, the film’s framing of Boyka as a small-time workman of the underground circuit who, despite never breaking into the big leagues, has become a hero and legend to so many, feels like an affecting homage to Adkins’ own career and legacy.
1. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
At the top of the Adkins totem pole is the film that tops many best-of-DTV-action lists in general. A follow-up to the 2009 Universal Soldier: Regeneration, which is itself a direct sequel to Roland Emmerich’s 1992 Universal Soldier, Day of Reckoning takes Regeneration’s own subversive spin on the original’s premise—the idea of the endlessly reanimated soldier is, in the 2009 film, used to explore the physical and psychic fallout of weaponized male bodies hardwired for destruction—and further molds this concept into strange, nightmarish shapes. Drawing as much on David Lynch and Apocalypse Now as action films past, Day of Reckoning is suffused with dream logic and pulsing light effects that hypnotize and seduce even as blasts of splatter-punk gore jolt us awake. This push-pull effect—the ambivalence of being both sucked into and horrified by what we see—lies at the crux of the film’s “meta” exploration of primal violence, its dangerous allure, and the uneasy relationship it has with the action genre. Central to the film’s power is the way it casts genre icons—Van Damme, Lundgren, and Adkins—in monstrous versions of familiar roles. It’s the most ambitious film of Adkins’ career, drawing on and subverting the actor’s legacy in mesmerizing ways.
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