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During his press tour for John Wick 4, Keanu Reeves was asked about the two “martial arts legends” in Donnie Yen and Hiroyuki Sanada he got to work with in the film and made a point of adding Scott Adkins to this list. These three, he said, were “real martial artists” (as opposed to himself, a “movie martial artist”), and asserted that “Adkins’ technique, his passion, is on another level.”
While that was high praise indeed from cinema’s current bloodied action franchise king, for the legions of international fans Adkins has amassed in the two decades he’s been spin-kicking, backflipping and acrobatically whooping ass on screen, it was no more than he deserved. Across some 60-plus titles, the Brit has shown off both his prowess in more martial arts disciplines than most people have heard of — including Taekwondo, Judo, Karate, Ninjitsu, Capoeira, Krav Maga, Wushu, Muay Thai, Kung Fu, Jeet Kune Do, Kickboxing and Brazilian Jui Jitsu — and bone fide acting skills.
But with much of Adkin’s career spent battling foes in the straight-to-DVD arena, for anyone whose action movie tastes rarely stray further than the mainstream, John Wick 4 may have been their first introduction to the 47-year-old. It certainly served up his meatiest ride in a major theatrical title to date, one where he wasn’t merely a mean-looking and mostly muted muscular punching bag for the main stars. And as the film’s oversized, sneering, gold-toothed German mob boss Killa, it was a role he absolutely devoured, stealing scenes from under the nose of Reeves (or “Mr. Vick,” as Killa calls him) before the two face off under the rain in one of film’s very best fight scenes.
Unfortunately for Adkins, Killa may not have quite been the Hollywood welcome he would have wanted, with his chiseled physique and good looks heavily submerged under a massive fat suit (actually made to look heavier than it was).
“It’s a weird one, because I’m not very recognizable,” Akins admits. “Even though it’s a great character to play and I really relished the opportunity to create him and do something different, I’m still under the radar.”
And under the radar is somewhere Adkins has thrived, a B-movie leading man who, in an age where CGI and stunt doubles have diminished the need for actors to actually pull off their own moves, does it all himself and proudly so. For many, he’s not just one of the last true action stars working today, but someone who has been criminally overlooked by the studios.
“Scott should have been James Bond, he should have been Batman,” says Isaac Florentine, the action veteran who’s directed Adkins across numerous titles. “Because people will see someone who not only can act, but can move like nobody else, with no stunt guys and no doubles. He deserves to be a mainstream star.”
Not that Adkins is complaining too much. “I make a good living doing what I love,” he explains, speaking from his home just north of the English city of Birmingham, where he lives with his wife and two kids. But he acknowledges that the dream of reaching the “next rung of the ladder” and leading a major theatrical movie has — so far — been elusive.
The drive and dedication is certainly there, with producers, directors and co-stars regularly citing Adkins’ incredible work ethic. “As well as being a wonderful man, he’s so focused and hardworking, and so well-trained for everything he does,” says Jeffrey Greenstein, head of genre-juggernaut Millennium, which has produced many Adkins films.
It’s something Adkins claims he gets from his parents, who come from a long line of butchers. “They were both grafters. And you need to be a grafter to do martial arts, because it’s not easy,” he says.
Adkins’ first taste of martial arts came around the age of 10, when he was inspired to take up Judo after watching Bruce Lee films. The training stepped up when he was 13 years old after he was mugged, with Taekwondo and later Kickboxing added to his repertoire and him turning his dad’s garage into his own personal dojo (complete with a shrine to Lee). Then, around the same time, Jean Claude Van Damme came along.
“He was massive for me. I remember watching Bloodsport and literally saying to my mum, ‘Come in here and look at this guy, that’s what I want to do,” recalls Adkins (who has since starred alongside his hero in four titles). Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jackie Chan would soon join the mix of “bigger-than-life action stars” he wanted to emulate.
It would be several years later, not until 2006’s straight-to-video MMA thriller Undisputed II: Last Man Standing that Adkins would first make a sizeable fist-sized dent on the movie map. By this stage and now in his mid-20s, he’d already scored a debut film (one involving some serious moves with nunchucks) in Chinese action thriller Extreme Challenge after befriending Bey Logan, a fellow Brit who had become something of a martial arts movie mogul in Hong Kong and put his name forward. He returned home to roles in BBC soaps Doctors and Eastenders (in which he was literally introduced as the “hunk in the shirt” and spent his six episodes primarily as a source of eye candy — “They kept filming my behind!” he says).
Adkins’ career as a TV heartthrob was short-lived, however, thanks to a demo tape he sent to Florentine, who had started making action films for Millennium.
“Most of the tapes we received were horrendous,” recalls the filmmaker. Adkins’, which he had to be persuaded to watch, had everything — hero shots, martial arts action shots, shots showing his acrobatic skills and, crucially, clips from his TV work that showed he could act. After a short battle with producers (including what he calls a “screaming match” with Millennium founder Avi Lerner), Florentine secured Adkins a small role in the next film he was directing, war actioner Special Forces, to try him out. “And he was just amazing… amazing to work with.”
According to Florentine, another actor was due to play Undisputed II’s chief antagonist Boyka, a villainous limb-snapping Russian prison fighter and MMA champion. But encouraged by Adkins’ commitment, he fought to cast his new star instead, telling him to grow his facial hair and sticking him in heeled shoes to overcome arguments that he was both too handsome and, at 5’ 10”, too short for the role. It worked. A film that could easily have slipped through the home entertainment cracks was hailed as one of the very best by action aficionados, who praised the choreography. And while Michael Jai White was the lead star, it was Adkins’ heavily-accented anti-hero — hard-as-nails and extremely brutal, but a man with strong fighting honor — who emerged as the fan favorite. An action icon was borne.
“But it didn’t happen overnight — it’s not like it was in the cinema and was a big hit and everyone knew about it,” notes Adkins. Released on video and long before the age of the streamers, it took some time for Undisputed II to gather word-of-mouth steam. “It was like, if you knew you knew, so if you like martial arts films, that’s the one to watch, watch this guy… but it was a long buildup.”
Such was the wait that Adkins says he didn’t get much work for a couple of years and, with his first child on the way, began to question whether or not he should keep going. But he stuck it out. More, mostly badass henchmen, roles would come, including his first with Van Damme, The Shepherd: Border Patrol (again directed by Florentine, who again had to fight for his protege’s casting), and his first studio title, playing a barely visible agent in The Bourne Ultimatum who’s swiftly despatched by Matt Damon in one scene. He’d also reprise his Russian accent as Boyka in Undisputed III: Redemption, his reformed high-kicking prisoner having been promoted to the main role.
But it wasn’t until 2012’s Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (again with Van Damme and his first of several films with Dolph Lundgren) that he claims he felt a “major career shift”. Not only did he have the central role ahead of two legends in a well-known film series (playing a military badass suffering from amnesia), but it was well-received by critics, likened to a psychological arthouse horror with action sequences considered the best in the entire franchise.
By this point, news of Adkins’ heroics in Undisputed II had also traveled around the world, striking a particular chord outside of the main markets in regions such as the Middle East, Eastern Europe and South America. (Florentine says that, years later, he was trying to shoot a film in Sao Paulo and only got permission because the local mafia boss “loved Scott”).
While still largely an unknown in both the U.S. and the U.K., Adkins’ growing international appeal had helped secure him the all-important status of someone whose name could help get a project financed. “And when you’re in that position, then you can really start,” he claims.
From that career-defining moment, the quality and quantity of Adkins’ output increased and he mixed things up across crime dramas, martial arts movies, war films, action thrillers, sci-fi actioners and action comedies, mostly as the lead (Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud, Savage Dog, Zero Tolerance, Close Range, The Debt Collector) but occasionally playing the muscular, power-kicking antagonist (Wolf Warrior, The Legend of Hercules). In 2017 he went back to his most famous role for Boyka: Undisputed, the fourth in the series (and the winner of multiple action awards, including the Jackie Chan Best Action Movie Actor Award for Adkins). He even turned producer, starting with 2018’s action comedy Accident Man, based on a comic strip that he’d read as a kid which he then optioned, co-wrote and starred in as Mike Fallon, an assassin who disguises his kills as accidents.
“I wanted to take control of my own projects and not be at the mercy of waiting for a script or a part that I might be right for,” he says. Released on DVD and digitally by Sony, Accident Man received solid reviews and was followed by the 2022 sequel, Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday, also co-written by Adkins (who says he now has plans to direct, with a project in the pipeline that he’d also star in)
Interspersed among these titles were smaller roles in bigger, star-powered theatrical titles, but from few of which his character survived.
In 2012, the same year Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning came out, he played Van Damme’s murderously evil right-hand henchman in The Expendables 2, Millennium’s bicep-busting all-star sequel that, with a cast including Schwarzenegger and Stallone, managed to tick off a lot of boxes of action heroes he grew up watching. “Whenever you meet them, it’s a big deal,” he admits. “Not so much for them. For them, it’s just another Tuesday. But for me, it was everything.”
More major names were to come.
In Doctor Strange, he fought Benedict Cumberbatch through magic portals as one of Mads Mikkelsen’s zealots (one boasting some un-zealot-like pumped-up guns), in Grimsby he took on Sacha Baron Cohen’s bumbling spy as a globe-trotting hitman, in American Assassin he appeared as a black ops agent on the hunt for Taylor Kitsch’s plutonium-stealing operative, and in Criminal he played a CIA agent in a cast including Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman and Gal Gadot. Of course, he had experience with Reynolds before, standing in for the actor in X-Men Origins: Wolverine as Weapon XI (Reynolds appeared for close-ups and simple stunts, while Adkins performed the more complicated moves). As superhero movie fans know, Weapon XI was an early incarnation of Deadpool, laying the path for Reynolds’ route toward Hollywood greatness.
But despite such repeat brushes with big films and big stars, Adkins’ own springboard into the big league himself has yet to fully take shape. Part of the problem, perhaps, is that his regular turn as a henchman who rarely makes it to the end of a major movie in one piece has ruled him out of repeat franchise appearances. He cites Doctor Strange, a small role that has — potentially — ruined his chances of another stab at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Did I really want to blow my load on that?” he asks, with typically British self-deprecation. “No, I don’t think so.”
That said, the more people in the upper echelons of the industry he works with, the more respect he amasses. Donnie Yen — another legend he grew up obsessing over — personally asked him to appear in Ip Man 4: The Finale, the Hong Kong martial arts icon’s final turn in his phenomenally successful biographical film series (a series he started at the age of 45, proving it’s never too late to kick-start a major action career). According to Adkins, it was Yen who would later tell John Wick 4 director Chad Stahelski to cast him as Killa.
Stahelski is part of what Adkins calls a “new wave of stuntmen turned directors,” filmmakers that, despite the abundance of technology at their disposal, appreciate the need for the sort of real on-camera action that Adkins is a grandmaster of. Another is J.J. Perry, who directed him in 2022’s action comedy Day Shift and the upcoming The Killer’s Game (alongside Dave Bautista). Then there’s Bullet Train‘s David Leitch, who he hasn’t worked with but has been “talking to about things.”, and his friend Sam Hargrave, who directed Chris Hemsworth in Netflix’s Extraction and Extraction 2 (as an actor who “obviously works really hard,” Hemsworth is someone Adkins has a lot of respect for)
“So you’ve got those guys that look at what I’ve done in the past and they’re not snobby about it,” he says. “Because they understand what it is and that you need to have somebody who can do the action to make their films better.”
And now he has a new mega fan in Keanu Reeves. Earlier this year, the actor appeared on Adkins’ popular The Art of Action YouTube series, in which he interviews his contemporaries and co-stars about the world of on-screen martial arts, and once again heaped more enthusiastic praise on his host about John Wick 4. “Your performance and that character you constructed were just so awesome,” said Reeves.
The stars — and filmmakers — seem to be aligned for Adkins to be finally ushered into major theatrical action man mode and away from a world he describes as his “$1 million movies and killing myself to shoot it in 18 days.” He may have met an untimely end at the hands (and feet and axe) of Wick, but the momentum from Adkins’ biggest mainstream role so far should hopefully propel him to many more. Just so long as people know who it was behind all the prosthetics.
As Adkins notes: “It’s like, ‘Oh, that fat guy was good at martial arts… I’ve never seen him before’.”