The Artful Brutality of Jesse V. Johnson and Scott Adkins

If you listen very closely to the bowels of modern cinema, you might just hear the distinctive sounds of bones splintering, flesh rending, and teeth shattering, all punctuated by eruptions of British profanity. What you’re hearing is the signature symphony of director Jesse V. Johnson and actor Scott Adkins, whose recent, rampant run of scuzzy collaborations has set the world of direct-to-video action ablaze.

Johnson and Adkins first worked together on Johnson’s 2005 film Pit Fighter—a modest early effort, which despite being severely inhibited by unrefined fight sequences and a joyless lead performance from Dominiquie Vandenberg, nonetheless showed glimpses of greater things to come. The two converged again in 2017 with the deliciously gruesome revenge thriller Savage Dog, and since then it’s been hit after hit, as they continue to churn out their impressive low-budget throwbacks at a blistering pace. In 2018 came the Ritchiesque Accident Man, and the weary buddy movie The Debt Collector; then in 2019, the non-stop brawl-fest Triple Threat, and the melancholy mayhem of Avengement; and so far in 2020, the hangout comedy sequel The Debt Collectors.

So, they’re prolific—but what exactly makes them so special? What sets them apart from so many of their mainstream contemporaries within the genre, who seem to have lost their way in a haze of dizzy camerawork, graceless editing, and glossy special effects? Well, to begin with, Scott Adkins is quite simply the most complete screen fighter working in the West right now, possessing a rare mixture of brutal athleticism and mixed martial arts finesse that no conventional Hollywood star can even dream of matching. He’s a disciple not only of the lithe, legendary Jean-Claude Van Damme, whom he dreamt of emulating while growing up, but also of Yuen Woo-ping and Sammo Hung, two of the greatest martial arts choreographers in Hong Kong cinema, with whom he worked at the very beginning of his career.

Hong Kong action cinema is steeped in the acrobatic tradition of Chinese opera, and its influence upon Adkins is obvious. In the heat of cinematic battle, he maintains an impeccable sense of rhythm, even musicality—his footwork, his blocks, his grapples, and his strikes, are all executed in a sustained, propulsive cadence that keeps the set piece moving forwards. And when he turns on the style, he really takes flight. Adkins is a beast in a scuffle—as showcased in The Debt Collector and Avengement, battering his way through goons when technique dissipates—but he’s never better than when he transforms a skirmish into a sublime, devastating aerial ballet. When a fight reaches its zenith, Adkins turns into a whirlwind, swivelling through the air with the agility and elasticity of a supreme gymnast. An Adkins spinning kick is like a graceful pirouette—only this pirouette can sever a man’s head from his shoulders.

This image is from the film Avengement (2019). A man holds on to the bars of a jail cell and screams.
Avengement (2019) / Image courtesy of Netflix

Adkins can’t truly flourish, though, unless the director can keep up with him—and this is where Johnson steps in. Before establishing himself as a force behind the camera, Johnson worked for years as a stuntman and stunt coordinator for an assortment of great directors, stretching all the way from Paul Verhoeven on Total Recall and Starship Troopers, to Terrence Malick on The Thin Red Line. Johnson simply relishes action, and his experiences, both as a physical performer and in orchestrating dynamic visuals, inform his crisply kinetic framing as a director. The overwhelming majority of Hollywood action directors shoot fight scenes in muddy, manic, barely comprehensible handheld close-ups, in order to compensate for the fact that their clean and pristine actors are completely unconvincing combatants. Johnson, meanwhile, shoots in wide and steady handheld, making sure that his camera captures the full weight of every punishing strike, and every detail of his sharp choreography. He lights his environments brightly—after all, Adkins has no deficiencies that need to be disguised. And like Adkins, Johnson has a fantastic sense of timing, knowing exactly when to step in and when to back away with his aggressive but fluid camera movements.

Johnson is also acutely aware that a great dancer still needs a great dance partner—Adkins needs a Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire. It can be painful to watch Adkins when he’s tethered to performers who are alien to action—he’s like a majestic bird bereft of his wings. So, Johnson constantly surrounds him with accomplished martial artists who can hold their own against the British bruiser—from fellow low-budget film fighters like Iko Uwais of The Raid, Michael Jai White of Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, and Amy Johnston of Lady Bloodfight, to former Strikeforce middleweight champion Cung Le.

Just as crucially, Johnson has found in Matthew Lorentz, who’s edited every collaboration between Johnson and Adkins, a dance partner of his own—a precise and knowledgeable craftsman, whom he can trust to cut confidently while preserving the tempo of the fight. Lorentz is a far cry from the editors who’ve castrated mainstream action for so long, who mutilate fight scenes by cutting away on every hit. He’s an editor who truly respects the art of brutal screen violence.

And Johnson’s violence isn’t half brutal—it’s genuinely, deeply disgusting. Spitting in the face of the tame bloodlessness that earns every blockbuster its mild 12A rating, Johnson is committed to the sort of nastiness and gore that rivals some of the grossest, sleaziest horror films out there. Heads explode, corpses twitch, blood flows in geysers—and in the best scene from Savage Dog, Adkins executes one of the most gloriously barbaric coups de grâce in cinema history, carving out and devouring his opponent’s liver.

Part of the beauty of Johnson’s art is that the brutality is never one-sided. Watching Adkins annihilate his opponents is undeniably exhilarating, but there’s something equally thrilling about watching him suffer. One of the most dismaying stories to emerge from Hollywood last year was the news that Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, and Jason Statham, had all negotiated contracts on the Fast & Furious franchise which restricted the amount of punishment that they could receive in fight sequences. For the action superstars of today, it seems that to be anything short of invincible is to look irreparably bad.

This image is from The Debt Collector (2018). A man shoots a gun from behind a table.
The Debt Collector (2018) / Image courtesy of Netflix

Adkins embodies the very antithesis of that vapid egocentrism. Refreshingly, he’s a totally unselfish presence, more than happy to be beaten up, vulnerable, and defeated when he’s sharing the screen with his fellow fighters. He’s utterly vincible, and in Johnson’s films, he gets hurt a hell of a lot. For long stretches in Avengement, Adkins barely dishes out as much pain as he takes: he beats three men in his first fight in prison, but ultimately loses half of his teeth to a head stomp; in a later fight, he destroys a roomful of assailants, but is left permanently scarred after homemade napalm is thrown in his face. In Triple Threat, he takes two knives in the chest from Tony Jaa. And in Savage Dog, he barely lands any strikes on Cung Le, and ends up losing emphatically—only gaining the upper hand when he desperately, and rather dishonourably, reaches for a gun. It’s his vulnerability, as much as his ferocity, that makes Adkins such a compelling performer for Johnson.

Of course, Johnson isn’t the only director who’s been able to extract the very best from Scott Adkins the action star. Isaac Florentine, another modern virtuoso of hand-to-hand combat cinema, has forged a similarly fruitful partnership with Adkins over the years, on such direct-to-video gems as Undisputed III: Redemption and Ninja: Shadow of a Tear. And in the nightmarish masterpiece Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, which owes as much to David Lynch as it does to the previous instalments in its franchise, John Hyams pits Adkins against Dolph Lundgren and Van Damme, in a vicious, queasy clash of generations.

Johnson is, though, the only director who’s also given Adkins genuine licence to flex comedic and dramatic muscles that would otherwise waste away in stagnancy. Accident Man finds Johnson swerving into the stylistic territory of Guy Ritchie, and Adkins follows, delivering a satisfyingly pungent performance, constantly quipping in voiceover that’s as bemused as it is caustic. In The Debt Collector, Adkins gets to be funny again, this time alongside the wonderfully weary Louis Mandylor, in a buddy thug pairing that echoes the 48 Hrs., Streets of Fire, ‘dudes rock’ masculinity of the great Walter Hill. And in Avengement, Adkins leans admirably hard into Johnson’s wounded melodrama, throwing himself into the desperate sadness, even tenderness, of the role.

And as Adkins is developing shades and layers as an actor, Johnson is evolving as a storyteller alongside him. Johnson has always been, and will probably always be, a structural minimalist, whittling down every narrative element until only the bare essentials remain. But while the connective tissue of Savage Dog is nothing more than a series of valueless bridges from one set piece to the next, the same tissue in The Debt Collector and Avengement is genuinely substantive, imbuing the set pieces with the sort of emotional context that makes every hit feel that much heavier. Johnson’s ruthlessly efficient work is becoming more and more emotionally muscular—and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Johnson and Adkins aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel—they’re probably about as derivative as they are idiosyncratic. And yet still, very few filmmakers in the West can claim to be doing what these brawny Brits are doing, with the same levels of diligence and passion. Isaac Florentine is certainly amongst those few, as is Chad Stahelski—but who else? Who else is picking the action genre up from the canvas, where it’s been lying for so long without great performers or personalities? Perfect artistic harmony is hard to find, but Johnson and Adkins have found it in each other—they’re a match made in macho heaven.

Header image courtesy of Destination Films