Happy “Dave Bautista has a new movie out” week, Polygon readers. We’re extremely excited about the new M. Night Shyamalan movie Knock at the Cabin, starring Bautista, Jonathan Groff, and Rupert Grint. What better time to look back at one of WWE’s most successful alumni actors and his best roles?
We know you’re familiar with his turns as Drax in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or as the Extremely Dad Scott Ward in Zack Snyder’s casino-heist-meets-zombies thriller Army of the Dead, or as the men’s rights influencer Duke Cody in Glass Onion, or even as the terrifying assassin Mr. Hinx in Spectre (which resulted in a broken nose for ol’ Dave).
(And don’t come at me with Dune. The movie is certainly good enough to make the cut here, but Bautista’s barely in it.)
But what about beyond that? Before his current run of big-budget movies, Bautista made plenty of low-budget, straight-to-video action fare, and other movies that may have flown under your radar. And plenty of them are definitely worth your time.
We’ve wrapped up the best of the best of Bautista’s under-the-radar roles. Each of them capitalize on his unique charisma and charm, and plenty use his fighting skills as well. (Like Dave, we’re waiting for his rom-com role.)
Let’s get into it!
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy
For my money, this is Dave Bautista’s best movie, and one of his very best roles. Getting to play the bad guy foreigner in a Hong Kong action movie is a right of passage for many Western action stars, and it does not get better than getting to do so under the tutelage of legendary fight choreographer and director Yuen Woo-Ping. He told EW he felt “completely lost” at the start of shooting, but quickly adjusted.
I was struggling at first, and they wanted to kind of adjust things and I said, ‘Don’t! I will adjust to you, because I want to learn this. I’m here to work with Woo-Ping, and watch him, and study him, and see how he works.’
A spinoff of the Donnie Yen-led Ip Man franchise (in which every single entry is a banger), Master Z focuses on Max Zhang’s character, Cheung Tin-Chi, from Ip Man 3. You don’t have to see Ip Man 3 to follow this, although you should, because it’s great. Zhang is a young father humiliated by his defeat at the hands of Ip Man (spoilers, I guess, but the franchise is named after him) and who runs into the wrong crowd. Bautista plays the burly owner of a restaurant, and Michelle Yeoh plays the leader of an organized crime syndicate who now wants to go legit. I can not stress this enough: Master Z rules. —Pete Volk
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is available to stream on Peacock and Hi-Yah!, for free with ads on Tubi, Pluto TV, Plex, The Roku Channel, Freevee, and Crackle, for free with a library card on Kanopy or Hoopla, or for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and Vudu.
A reboot of the Jean-Claude Van Damme-led Kickboxer franchise, Vengeance is basically a remake of the original movie. A young man (Alain Moussi) travels across the world and trains to take vengeance on the fighter who killed his brother.
Vengeance is filled with DTV martial arts stars — Moussi (Jiu Jitsu) is one of the best cinematic kickers working today, and the movie also features Darren Shahlavi (Ip Man 2), pro fighters like Georges St-Pierre (who has a delightful intoxicated fight at the beginning) and Cain Velasquez, and, of course, a fedora-sporting Van Damme.
Vengeance is solid DTV martial arts revenge fare with good fights (the movie’s fight choreography was done by the very talented Larnell Stovall) and great fighters. There are better actors in the DTV space than Moussi, but few better kickers. He is able to draw dynamic, perfect lines with his kicks, which is always visually pleasing. There’s also a post-credits dance sequence where Moussi imitates JCVD’s famous dancing from the original Kickboxer.
But it all leads to Bautista, who plays the iconic villain Tong Po (a role Michel Qissi played in the original). Tong Po is a brutal Muay Thai expert, and Bautista is fierce and intimidating — amid a stable of incredible fighters, he stands out because of his massive frame and his intense stare. He flexes his pecs, he throws mean elbows, and he has absolutely no mercy. It’s a departure from many of Bautista’s recent roles as a big guy with a heart of gold, letting him flex some of his other acting muscles instead. Seemingly invincible, he’s a lethal killer in the ring, setting him up perfectly for a final showdown with our hero.
And while Bautista doesn’t have tiny glasses in this one, he does drink out of a tiny teacup. And what’s better than that? —PV
Kickboxer: Vengeance is available to stream for free with ads on Tubi, Pluto TV, and The Roku Channel, for free with a library card on Hoopla, or for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and Vudu.
Drew Pearce’s dystopian crime drama Hotel Artemis was widely praised when it was released in 2018 for its world-building and performances. One of the best of the latter is courtesy of none other than Bautista, who brings a hulking presence and acerbic sense of humor to the role of Everest, the assistant to “Nurse” Jean Thomas (Jodie Foster). Bautista is easily the breakout performance of the film, delivering hilarious one-liners (“I will hunt you down and un-heal the shit out of you”) and colder-than-ice threats (“Because Junior, you’re a slow code”) with a sense of intimidating charm and personality that is all his own. Hotel Artemis is a great film even apart from Bautista’s Everest, but it’d be worth seeing just on the strength of his performance alone. —Toussaint Egan
As I recently wrote for our list of the best movies leaving streaming in January, 2013’s Riddick is the series’ answer to Mad Max: Fury Road: a back-to-basics soft reboot that pits the film’s eponymous antihero in a battle against mercenaries and the elements of an inhospitable alien planet. Dave Bautista’s character, Diaz, a dreadlock-haired killer-for-hire, is the film’s equivalent of Pitch Black’s antagonist Johns: a corrupt, self-serving bounty hunter who double-crosses Riddick in the hopes of killing him to claim his bounty and securing his own escape off-world. Where Bautista’s performance exceeds Cole Hauser’s Johns is in his physicality, posing a legitimate threat to Riddick as the two clash over the fuel nodes necessary to power. Riddick naturally gets the upper hand, but Diaz does manage one final “fuck you” gesture by shooting and disabling the hoverbike Riddick needs to escape before succumbing to his injuries. Now that’s cool. —TE
I’m going to be real, Bushwick is not a good movie. In fact, I think it’s quite bad! But this is a list of Dave Bautista deep cuts, Dave Bautista is very good in Bushwick, and Bushwick is a movie not many people have seen. So it fits! There are other good things about it, including a light but effective score from Aesop Rock, and some moments that hint at a much better movie lurking within, but this one’s for the Bautista die-hards.
Bushwick follows a young woman (Brittany Snow) who exits a subway station in Bushwick only to discover a war is raging above (in a rarity at the movies these days, the attackers of NYC in Bushwick are humans). Caught up in the crossfire, she makes her way to a nearby apartment, where she finds Stupe (Dave Bautista), a quiet and reserved military veteran with a troubled past who now works as a janitor. The two of them band together to cross the battle zone and make it to their respective family members and safety.
The movie is yet another attempt at the fake one-take gimmick, which generally does not work for me (although to Bushwick’s credit, there were moments where the gimmick utilized the geography of the neighborhood and its buildings to bring the viewer further into the conflict and the precariousness of the protagonists’ situation). Critically, the movie’s attempts to examine the “human element” of crises fall quite flat (there’s way too much focus on the “horrors of looting” for a movie with the compelling “unknown invasion force in Bushwick” logline).
But the highlight here is Bautista, who plays Stupe as simultaneously eerily calm and on the verge of total collapse, like he’s fighting off tears at every moment. You get the sense being tasked with someone to care for gives him the drive he needs to keep himself together. It’s a very difficult ask, but Bautista delivers.
And for the gamers out there, Bushwick was co-written by Graham Reznick, who co-wrote the video games Until Dawn and The Quarry. —PV