Captain Marvel may seem to be the action movie event of the month, but for fans of martial arts cinema, there’s a far more exciting film coming to Video on Demand on March 22. Its name is Triple Threat, and it seems tailor-made for action junkies who grew up on a diet of ’80s hard-body action films, kung-fu flicks, and, more recently, contemporary direct-to-video actioners that function as a reprieve from Hollywood’s weightless CGI and post-Bourne shaky cam. Helmed by Jesse V. Johnson, one of the fastest rising directors on the DTV circuit, Triple Threat’s chief appeal lies in its jaw-dropping cast of martial arts stars whose collective wattage outshines most other films from this decade.
To fully appreciate the ridiculousness of the action talent on display, one must be familiar with the actors’ films, but with such a packed cast, going through all the filmographies would take forever. As such, I’ve thrown together a quick guide to the who’s who of Triple Threat and provided one film for each star that captures that actor’s persona. All the actors featured in the guide have held a leading, action-oriented role in an action film at some point; this requirement unfortunately disqualifies cast members Celina Jade, Michael Bisping, and Ron Smoorenburg, all of whom have only ever played supporting and/or non-action-oriented parts. Michael Wong, an icon of Hong Kong cinema, appears in Triple Threat and has starred in action movies, but because he is not known for being an action star specifically, I’ve also excluded him from the list.
Despite not meeting the requirements, all these actors still very much belong to the same genre milieu as their co-stars — Jade is the daughter of Roy Horan, an American martial artist who has starred alongside Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, and has herself shared screen time with action stars like Wu Jing and Dolph Lundgren; Bisping is a former UFC Middleweight Champion who has appeared in xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (2017) and Den of Thieves (2018); Smoorenburg is an actor, stuntman, and fight choreographer who faced off against several of our featured stars in films like Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013) and The Protector (2005); and Wong has acted alongside myriad Hong Kong action stars, at one point even fighting Donnie Yen in In the Line of Duty 4 (1989). The presence of these actors in addition to the main stars indicates just how fully Triple Threat is situated within the contemporary martial arts movie scene. With the help of this guide, you can get situated as well.
Actor: Scott Adkins
Film: Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2006)
English martial artist Scott Adkins is the full package when it comes to action stardom, uniting ’80s hyper-muscularity with fleet-footed martial arts mastery. In this respect, he’s not unlike Jean-Claude Van Damme, and it is the Van Damme-Adkins collaboration Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012) that many (myself included) consider to be peak Adkins. That said, the film’s Lynchian leanings and formal experimentation make it an anomaly in Adkins’ oeuvre, so I’ve decided to go with Undisputed II, a movie that sees a shirtless Adkins pummeling opponents to a pulp within the brutal world of prison fighting (he plays the villain but is also the best part of the film). Celebrations of insane physical prowess don’t get any purer than this.
Actor: Tiger Hu Chen
Film: The Man of Tai Chi (2013)
Protégé of the legendary choreographer and director Yuen Woo-Ping, Tiger Chen started out doing stunts for early-aughts martial arts pictures like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), the Matrix sequels (2003), and Fearless (2006), but in 2013, he had his international breakout role with the Keanu Reeves-helmed Man of Tai Chi. In that film, Chen wields a weaponized Tai Chi against a potpourri of martial arts styles, moving elegantly between poise and focused fury. His appeal lies in an old-school reliance on high kicks and fast blows that feel air-dropped in from the ’80s heyday of Hong Kong action cinema.
Actor: Tony Jaa
Film: Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003)
My favorite Tony Jaa film is the formally virtuosic, narratively epic martial arts melodrama Sha po lang 2 (2015), but the Thai sensation’s international breakout film Ong-Bak is still his most iconic, delivering an early showcase for Jaa’s bruising Muay Thai. On the one hand a work of fat-free storytelling, the film also relishes in its lead’s preternatural athleticism, replaying sensational stunts from different angles and in slow motion to show that, yes, Jaa did jump out a second-story window after a falling adversary and, amid shards of airborne glass, knee the guy’s face in midair.
Actor: Iko Uwais
Film: The Raid: Redemption (2011)
The global breakout film for both Uwais and the Indonesian martial art pencak silat, The Raid: Redemption showcases the lead’s now trademark mix of fluid, dancerly movements and sharp, precise blows while scaffolding the film’s wall-to-wall action with a brilliantly stripped-down narrative that recalls claustrophobic fight-for-survival thrillers like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). The Raid walks the tightrope between grace and savagery as skillfully as any film I’ve ever seen, and Uwais is its stunning centerpiece.
Actor: Michael Jai White
Film: Blood and Bone (2009)
White’s appeal is similar to Adkins’, but the man is even more of a physical juggernaut, towering like a cliff face that can launch roundhouse kicks worthy of Van Damme. Although his acting work has ranged from the critically reviled superhero film Spawn (1997) to blaxploitation parody Black Dynamite (2009), Blood and Bone is arguably the purest distillation of his abilities as an action star. Showcasing White’s imposing presence and technical precision, the film observes as the man take down opponent after opponent with Bruce-Lee-levels of swiftness and brutal efficiency.
Actor: JeeJa Yanin
Film: Chocolate (2008)
Beyond her debut film Chocolate, Thai martial artist Yanin “Jeeja” Vismitananda hasn’t had many starring roles, and the films she has headlined—chief among them Raging Phoenix (2009) and This Girl is Bad-Ass!! (2011)—haven’t had much international reach. This is a shame, because in Chocolate, Yanin proves herself to be an able-bodied fighter and athlete, nowhere more so than in a staggering, eleventh-hour set piece that takes place entirely along the outside of a multi-story building. As bad guys struggle to stop her before being knocked down to the streets far below (bless the film’s committed stunt team), Yanin nimbly navigates from floor to floor, circumventing obstacles (or kicking them into submission) with a grace that evokes ballet and parkour.