There was nothing personal when Matt Damon kicked Scott Adkins in the groin. Life as a professional martial screen fighter had whisked Adkins from Hong Kong to Bulgaria and everywhere in between, and served up plenty of fouls along the way. This particular slip, on the set of 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, only really stung because it was a hard reminder. This was the era of Hollywood casting, in which Oscar-winning celebrities like Damon took the lead roles in action films, and guys like Adkins, the trained screen warrior, took blows below the belt when stunts went awry.
Adkins, 43, is an action star in the mold of Jean-Claude Van Damme, a handsome and charismatic performer who can also spin kick high enough to clip a guy’s head. When Hollywood blockbusters like Doctor Strange or The Brothers Grimsby need a martial artist who can actually zip up walls or tumble with a pair of pistols, they call Adkins. In the third Bourne film, he played a thankless CIA officer, fodder for the dizzying karate chops of Damon’s super soldier. The role was exactly what he needed as an actor breaking into studio films in 2007, but in retrospect, that was also a time when the action genre as a whole was sinking.
“When the Bourne films came along, they figured out how to shake the camera in such a way that you could kind of disguise the failings of the performer,” he told me this past summer, calling in from London. “Paul Greengrass knows what he’s doing. I wouldn’t choose to do it that way, but I understand why he does it.”
Whether you blame choppy edits, tricky framing, or CGI, the sun was setting for actors with physical ability and dexterity. Why hire a karate expert when A-listers could be made into killing machines in post-production?
Adkins remembers Greengrass telling him, “Scott, the less you see, the more you believe.” Yet for a certain action star, seeing is the whole point. “I’d like to see it and believe it,” Adkins said. “That’s the ideal situation. But it’s damn hard work.”
In the 2000s, Adkins found a way around Hollywood, becoming the go-to leading man for a band of filmmakers who believed in “damn hard work.” In the modern action pantheon established by martial arts magazines, movie blogs, and connoisseurs like author Outlaw Vern, directors like John Hyams (the Universal Soldier sequels) or Jesse V. Johnson (2019’s acclaimed Triple Threat and Avengement) are renowned for concocting the best fight scenes of the past decade, packed into 90-minute-or-less genre rockets.
Not unlike the special actor-director partnerships of Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson or Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Isaac Florentine, a martial artist and veteran B-movie director with a sterling reputation for blunt-force filmmaking, forged Adkins’ cult status as the best screen fighter in the direct-to-video circuit. Ninja: Shadow of a Tear was their Taxi Driver. A set of spinoff sequels to Walter Hill’s 2002 drama Undisputed, which swapped prison boxing for MMA cage, achieved a Raging Bull-level synthesis of talents. None of their films required Oscar winners faking a ball check.
Adkins and Florentine both have an almost religious commitment to old-school action filmmaking, and yet they differ significantly in how they approach their respective careers. A self-described blue-collar director, Florentine is happy to hold down his status as a cult favorite; Adkins wants nothing more than to compete with Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves for poster-topping roles.
“I get these messages on Facebook: ‘Why don’t you go play James Bond? Why don’t you go be in a Marvel film?’” Adkins said. “Well, I would if I was offered, wouldn’t I? But at the end of the day, I can only deal with what I’m offered.”
“He should be the next James Bond,” Florentine told me later. “I think Scott should be an A-lister. He’s an excellent actor and amazing screen fighter.”
How these two true believers found each other is a window into how the action genre has survived into the 21st century, and the singular, if lesser-known, creators who have done the hard work of keeping it alive.
For Florentine, 61, movies and martial arts are fatefully entangled.
Growing up in Israel in the 1970s, he saw Hong Kong imports like Enter the Dragon (1973) and Fist of Fury (1972) around the same time that the first karate dojos opened in tiny postwar Tel Aviv.
This was before The Karate Kid (1985) turned martial arts into a youth craze. It was still the domain of tough guys looking to kick ass and sculpt their bodies. The discipline was also more rigid and formal. A young Florentine managed to hold his own against older fighters by mixing it up, using a high kick that he learned from watching Bruce Lee: “When I was a little child, I used to kick everybody in the ribs.”
At Saturday matinees, Florentine fell in love. You Only Live Twice was a revelation. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was a bigger revelation. He liked John Wayne but preferred spaghetti Westerns over American films, because they “cut to the chase.” Inspired, Florentine started making 8mm home movies in between karate practice.
After serving three years in the military, he opened his own martial arts school and joined the film program at Tel Aviv University. His capstone project, “Farewell, Terminator,” a post-apocalyptic shoot-’em-up set in a crumbling section of Tel Aviv, won the student prize, despite some judges dismissing the violent script out of hand. The 30-minute film combined Florentine’s martial arts prowess with flashy gunfights and stunts ripped straight out of low-budget American action movies.
After college, an actual career in movies seemed like a remote possibility. Israel didn’t have a film industry to speak of, and Hollywood was a far-off place. Florentine, for his part, would have been content to run a dojo and teach history. Then he saw a little movie called American Ninja.
The story of a U.S. Army private and amnesiac who takes on a secret order of Filipino ninjas, American Ninja arrived courtesy of Israeli producers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan’s Cannon Group. Known for a certain type of American B-movie — jingoistic, violent, goofy in a midnight-movie way — a Cannon film did a lot with a little. Movies like Invasion U.S.A., The Delta Force, and Enter the Ninja were cheap but thrilling exercises in pure genre filmmaking. American Ninja’s mix of bombast and efficiency made a career in film seem possible for Florentine, who remembers telling his wife, “I think I can do this kind of movie.”
In 1988, the budding director moved his family to Los Angeles. By then he had picked up a few fight choreography credits before meeting Golan, who gave him a shot at directing a feature. 1992’s Desert Kickboxer, the story of a retired Navajo cop who takes on a Mexican drug lord amid the stark Arizona desert, was sturdy and cheap. This served as a template for the years to come.
Cannon collapsed soon after the release of Desert Kickboxer, destroying what for Florentine would have been a natural habitat. Luckily, another opportunity emerged: Fox Kids was adapting the Japanese TV series Super Sentai into Power Rangers, and was struggling to blend the existing footage with new English-speaking material. The Japanese footage had been edited in-camera (as in, each shot was composed as though for the final edit), leaving American producers with fewer master shots and over-the-shoulder coverage — the bread and butter of TV production.
“It was like water and oil. They didn’t jell,” said Florentine, whose name came up as someone who could help align the styles. “When you shoot action, you can’t shoot a master [shot], because every segment needs to be composed to glorify the action.” Glorify, he did. During the first season, for instance, he rigged a camera to a trash can lid and spun it like a frisbee.
Around the same time, former Cannon producer Avi Lerner finally found a groove with his new company, Nu Image, a home for B-movies. (Lerner would eventually spin off Millennium Films, best known for Olympus Has Fallen and its sequels). Florentine settled into the folds, directing Dolph Lundgren in Bridge of Dragons , while sticking with Power Rangers, which he thought of has a “test lab” for shooting action. The fight scenes between costumed teenagers gave him countless opportunities to refine his craft, making fewer cuts and mixing in more idiosyncratic angles and camera movements.
Maybe it would have been different if Florentine hadn’t made what he called his “biggest mistake” of his career in 1995: turning down directing duties on Xena: Warrior Princess to make WMAC Masters, a zany WWE for martial artists inspired by the arcade game Virtua Fighter. At the time, WMAC seemed to offer a greater opportunity to develop his approach to on-screen fight choreography and martial arts. Xena ran for six seasons and established Lucy Lawless as TV’s preeminent female action star. Fox canceled WMAC Masters after two years. Where did this leave Florentine?
He still had movies. In the early 2000s, before streaming steamrolled the home video market, the young director showed a knack for churning out hits like U.S. Seals 2, Special Forces, and Undisputed 2, which generated buzz among fans of the increasingly niche action genre going into the 21st century. Florentine’s films also make money; based on 2007 sales numbers, Undisputed 2 made nearly $10 million just on home video.
“The main attraction is obviously how well he does the fight scenes,” said Outlaw Vern, a critic with a concentration in action cinema who was an early admirer of Florentine’s work. “His work is a great example of the camera angle being designed to emphasize the action and movements of the bodies in the shot instead of just the camera trying to simulate excitement by moving around.”
As Florentine built up his career in the fledgling B-movie market, Scott Adkins chased his own dreams of stardom in Sutton Coldfield, a blue-collar suburb of Birmingham, England.
A hyperactive kid steeped in mid-’80s American action films, Adkins wanted to practice martial arts as far back as he could remember. First came judo, which was fun but technical. He longed for the dramatic striking and kicking that he saw in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport (1985). Taekwondo and kickboxing eventually scratched the itch.
When the Cannon Group’s American Ninja came out in 1985, Adkins enrolled in “ninja school,” which popped up in England following the film’s success. “We would learn self-defense techniques — a lot of going for the balls and things like that,” he told me.
Ninja school and practicing actual martial arts all flowed out of the same well as other boyish aspirations. But watching Van Damme gave the dream a shape: Adkins wanted to be an action star.
After Santa delivered him a camcorder that Christmas, Adkins started shooting short films with his buddies in the backyard. He later attended drama school, but struggled to bring his acting skills up to par with this physical abilities. “As soon as I started doing taekwondo, I was the best kicker in the class. It just came naturally to me,” Adkins said. “The acting didn’t come as naturally. I didn’t have the confidence with it.”
Adkins still taught kickboxing in Milton Keynes when he got a gig on the BBC crime show City Central. The appearance was enough to catch the attention of Bey Logan, a fellow Englishman and martial arts enthusiast who worked almost exclusively in the Hong Kong movie business. Logan sent Adkins’ audition video to the right people, who cast him in The Accidental Spy as Jackie Chan’s bodyguard. He quickly became the “new white guy in Hong Kong,” working with Chan, Yuen Woo-ping, and everyone else throwing themselves into the acrobatic throes of screen action. On sets, he became accustomed to the “Hong Kong way,” where not a single frame was wasted and every frame considered the action, the camera operators and actors finding harmonious rhythm.
Adkins never gave up on making it in Hollywood. Like any kid who grew up beholding the big-screen spectacles of Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, and Stallone, Adkins saw himself in the land of blockbusters. If anything, he thought his Hong Kong bona fides would make him a more complete action star, a one-man franchise ready to pick up the mantle of his original idol, Van Damme, whose career was winding down in the early 2000s.
Living in the shadow of those American action stars complicated Adkins’ career. “Being inspired by ’80s action stars, and then trying to have that career in the new millennium, was very difficult because they weren’t making those kinds of films anymore,” he said. “But I kept struggling. I knew that I had to improve as an actor.”
Little did Adkins know that both he and Van Damme were headed for the same place: the trained hands of direct-to-video’s hottest director.
Don Warrener, a stocky Canadian karate master, was 50 years old when he arrived in LA with the intention of breaking into the movie business. One of his first stops was Dragonfest in 1998, an annual gathering of industry types and wannabe action stars of all stripes.
“About 99% of them are phony as hell and couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag, so to speak,” he said.
Hoping to meet a big-time producer, Warrener donned a baby-blue suit and a tie with a gold dollar sign on it. Wandering the convention aisles, he bumped into Florentine, who was reading a book about Japanese karate that Warrener had translated himself. The two “karate bums” hit it off, and eventually decided to work together on a series of martial arts instructional videos.
Warrener and Florentine found themselves knee-deep in audition tapes from actors and fighters. Most were highlight reels of weekend warriors muddling their way through half-learned karate moves. But one stuck out: a handsome English gentleman with BBC credits and a handful of roles in Hong Kong films under his belt.
Warrener saw right away that the guy knew his stuff, so he passed the carefully wrapped VHS tape on to Florentine, who was impressed. Here was the real deal, he thought: a guy who could fight, deliver lines, and look good while doing it. In their circles, amid a sea of deluded amateurs, this was no small feat. He called Adkins in London in the middle of the night to offer him a movie role. Adkins asked if he could call in the morning.
That opportunity, which would have placed Adkins alongside his hero Van Damme, fizzled out. But the two hit it off, and decided to work together at their next chance. In Special Forces (2003), Florentine cast Adkins as a British operative tagging along with a group of U.S. special forces who need to take down the military leadership of a fake Eastern European dictatorship. Adkins was solid, if a little green, and Florentine gave him plenty of opportunities to show off his skills. In one of the film’s final scenes, Adkins, shirtless and bleeding, annihilates his foe with a positively balletic kick.
Adkins saw what made Florentine special. Sure, he knew how to fight, and he made sure to work with people who knew how to fight. He had an intuitive understanding of action iconography, that wordless language spoken by Sergio Leone, John Woo, John McTiernan, Tony Scott, King Hu, Jackie Chan, Yuen Woo-ping, Lau Kar-leung, and other legends. But above all else, Florentine prioritized the action scenes on set. In cash-strapped DTV productions, compromise came with the territory, but making the best of those limits requires a Zen-like organizer.
“In other movies, the action is always the first thing to get cut,” Adkins said. “It’s like, ‘OK, we’ve got a 100-page script, and we’ve got to shoot all the dialogue, because that’s the story, and the action is the action.’ But Isaac is like, ‘No, action is king. We’re making action films here.’”
Florentine’s mastery of the production schedule stabilized countless external factors that could derail a low-budget picture. He repeatedly mentioned the number of days he was given to shoot each of his films, which is usually no more than three weeks to a month.
“As a director, I don’t ask the budget,” Florentine said. “The first thing I ask when people come to me is how many shooting days. Because the budget is tricky; it’s a number. What’s important is how many shooting days, because action takes time. To do action right, you need the time.”
Matching Florentine’s work ethic takes discipline. The director favors extended takes involving brutal, wall-to-wall fights. They take their toll on the body, even for a young and eager physical specimen. And the director’s demands aren’t just on the actors and stunt performers.
”He’s very hard on the [camera] operator, because he needs to be as skilled as the action performers in order to catch the choreography,” Adkins said. “Making an Isaac Florentine film is very hard.”
Special Forces was the kind of B-movie fare Florentine got into the game to make. While superficially a patriotic military adventure, the film is more concerned with man-to-man combat than addressing foreign policy. There is an earnest love of action for action’s sake that is Cannon-esque. But after wrapping the film, the director hungered for a fresher take on the modern martial arts film.
His opportunity came with Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2006), the follow-up to Walter Hill’s underappreciated prison boxing film. He came into the project brimming with ideas. For one, he wanted to feature mixed martial arts rather than straight boxing. He also wanted to cast Adkins, a 5’10” Englishman, opposite Michael Jai White, a fearsome 6’1” African American with a heavyweight physique.
The producers balked — they wanted someone bigger and scarier, an unvarnished badass, not a handsome British guy — but Florentine insisted on Adkins. The character, Boyka, had the makings of a cult villain, a Slavic Apollo Creed for our hyper-violent, mass-incarcerated times. The trick was nailing the details.
“I had to make him look like a monster, so I told him, ‘Don’t shave,’” said Florentine.
Adkins’ Russian lifer was then given a distinctive side buzz and beard as well as a scattering of religious tattoos across his body.
Florentine wanted to tweak the character’s personality as well. The original script had Boyka poisoning his opponent. Florentine insisted on cutting that detail to ensure that Boyka maintained a warrior’s code of honor. The choice laid the groundwork for him to become the hero of both Undisputed III and the series’ fourth entry, which took his name, Boyka: Undisputed.
“The bad guy should not be weak. He should be tremendous, because the more he is tremendous, the more the audience will root for George Chamber [Jai White’s character]. He can be bad, but not a cheater,” Florentine said.
The film, along with Adkins’ take on Boyka, was a hit. To this day, when Florentine travels the world, he runs into fans of Boyka — many of whom saw the Undisputed films in theaters, thanks to global distribution deals. In an Istanbul barbershop, the actor met a man getting a Boyka haircut. While location scouting in a Brazilian favela, he said he got permission to shoot in a dangerous area from a local gangster who adored Boyka. Indeed, the character will soon star in an Undisputed television series, with Florentine set to direct. Production will reportedly begin in early 2020 with Adkins’ Boyka in the leading role.
Over the next few years, Florentine and Adkins continued to team up, injecting different genres with their fight-forward style and wrangling new collaborators. Van Damme himself starred in The Shepherd (2008), a gnarly Mexican face-off between border agents and narcos, with Adkins as the heavy. Ninja (2009) and Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013) rivaled the Undisputed series in popularity and craftsmanship. Spurred by then-upcoming ninja movie from Warner Bros. called Ninja Assassin (2009) and sharing a love of the long-dormant ninja genre, the pair came up with their own take.
Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, in particular, is the ultimate expression of their shared aesthetic: a series of near-constant fight scenes packed into a punchy, almost wordless script that nonetheless respects the ancient culture it represents. Adkins mixes brutal street fights and barroom brawls with intricate one-on-one battles employing swords, wooden staffs, knives, and nunchucks. In one scene, he ascends an apartment building shirtless while dodging machine-gun fire, then dispatches countless armed guards through a mix of dropkicks and takedowns. He calls it the toughest movie he’s ever made.
And yet, despite the relative success of both franchises, neither Adkins nor Florentine has been able to leverage them into bigger projects (aside from a handful of small parts for Adkins, including in Doctor Strange). Bigger names come to Florentine to work in his realm — Antonio Banderas played widowed husband out for revenge in 2017’s Acts of Vengeance — and Adkins occasionally gets the Hollywood call, but more than a decade after blowing up, both of them admit that success in direct-to-video has a downside.
“It does have a stigma, direct-to-video — ‘oh you’re only good enough for video.’ There’s so much content out there these days. You can’t stand toe-to-toe with Captain Marvel and expect people to come see your film when you’ve made it on a low budget,” said Adkins.
That realization has only made Adkins focus more on picking better projects and improving his acting skills — because the hard truth, he said, is that physical prowess has an expiration date.
“The 28-year-old Scott Adkins was a fucking beast,” he said. “When I did Undisputed II ... I’m not going to be able to outdo that guy anymore. So for me, the interest is going toward filmmaking, story, character, acting.”
Florentine, who between projects lives in a quiet seaside town in southern Florida, is more content to wait and see where the chips fall. He recognizes that a career of working with companies like Cannon and Nu Image may have confined him to the world of low-budget action, but he’s confident those same people will give him more work in the years to come.
“It used to bother me, but now I couldn’t care less,” he said on sticking to direct-to-video for the foreseeable future. “I’m grateful for what I have. I’m a very lucky person, in spite of everything.”
With actors like Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise proving that action stardom can continue well into middle age, Adkins hasn’t foreclosed on the possibility that he could make it big. And he’s happy to make an open-hearted plea for the opportunity to prove it.
“I would like Hollywood, whoever they are, to at least give me a chance to show what I can do with a real budget and a good script.”
Alex Vuocolo is a freelance reporter and editor based in New York City. He writes about genre movies, local politics, and transportation.