Tom Jolliffe takes a look at the work of director Jesse V. Johnson…
If you’re in the UK right now and you like action films you might have seen a recent double helping of Johnson (that’s my last ‘Johnson’ gag I swear) pop up. Streaming platforms dual dropped a double whammy of Triple Threat and Avengement. Both from Brit action director Jesse V. Johnson, and both starring Brit ass-kicker extraordinaire, Scott Adkins.
I probably don’t need to tell you how great Adkins is (as I’ve probably mentioned it before), but to keep it succinct, he’s steadily released a number of really solid action films over the last decade and a bit since he broke out as Boyka in Undisputed 2. Having grown up watching many an action film from the big screen to the bargain basement VHS premieres, I’ve seen the genre really change over the course of the last 15 or so years. CGI is taking over, and whilst DTV action remains fairly prolific, the films don’t quite have the charm (or even minimal budget) they used to have. Whilst the action Gods of yesteryear have aged, there have been very few new kids on the block to adequately come in a take up the mantle. On the big screen Dwayne Johnson (he’s a rock hard joh…no…I promised) is the only guy to rival the huge star power and magnetism that Arnold and Sly had in their prime. In the video realm, there aren’t too many stepping up to the plate (to be fair, there aren’t many being given the chance period). Scott Adkins may not have hit the platform he really deserves given his all round talent, but regardless, as a video premiere exponent of kicks and explosions, he’s the master. His output is not only prolific but on the whole (and in no small part thanks to Jesse Johnson and Isaac Florentine in particular) consistently good. He’s keeping the old school action star going in an age where stars in general are waning against the power of franchise, character and concept.
Back to Johnson. I first became aware of Jesse Johnson’s work having picked up a slim DVD case, with sparse artwork for a quid in Poundworld around 12ish years ago. It was called Pit Fighter (Adkins appears incidentally). I wasn’t expecting much for a pound, but to my surprise I really enjoyed it. It had an unexpectedly philosophical script, some nice photography and solid fights, and a solid support cast (including Steven Bauer who really impressed, and Stephen Graham). This was a director to watch methought.
A few follow up films later and he seemed to be struggling somewhat in straight to cable sci-fi’s, including Alien Agent (which starred Mark Dacascos and Billy Zane). Alien Agent had been a project I’d already been following with a bit of interest as at one time it seemed like it may have been a more substantially budgeted film starring Dolph Lundgren. Despite problems, it was pretty enjoyable and not least as the jobbing stunt specialist, Johnson, always seemed to get a good stunt team in his films. It was similar with the Don Wilson starrer (as well as Katee Satchoff), The Last Sentinel, which had its moments but ultimately not the budget to really do that kind of film justice.
From then on until the reteam with Adkins a few highlights include Charlie Valentine, The Butcher (which afforded movie-goers a rare luxury of seeing Eric Roberts back in a leading role, and also on top form) and The Package which was another solid, old-school action flick with a little more wry punch than most thanks to the script by Derek Kolstad (pre-John Wick breakout). I’d managed to see the script ahead of release, and it’s one of those rare occasions in the DTV world where a solid screenplay is done justice in the final film (or to put it another way, hasn’t been stripped of everything elaborate that might prove too costly). Having written myself on spec, you soon realise that whilst adhering to what everyone from producers to the distributors (particularly if they’re connected in development) want, you soon find yourself being funnelled into a direction you may not always agree with, but of course the alternative is to not work. So seeing a script which reads well, come largely to life as written, is pleasing.
Johnson crossed paths with Adkins again for Savage Dog. At this point, though it seemed like there was another team up in the offing beyond that, none could quite envision just how many would get greenlit in such a short space. Savage Dog is a down and dirty, violent tale of Adkins’ antihero in Indochina (within a labor camp) existing on the money he rustles up in fights. It feels like it belongs in the dustier depths of a video store in the 80’s, or like it could have been an Italian made Cannon release, and in a good way. Whilst unrefined, it marked a solid opening gambit in the Johnson/Adkins union and a chaotic finale is pure 80’s.
Accident Man came next. Based on a graphic novel, this is a colourful, action packed action/comedy which sees Adkins venture into Guy Ritchie territory (without going ‘too Ritchie.’). A great cast comes together, mixing solid character actors, with great action actors, with Ray Stevenson, Michael Jai White, Ray (m.fuckin) Park, Amy Johnston (she’s destined, I hope, to be a leading action specialist) and Nick Moran. The film looks great, and whizzes along at great pace. Adkins, with fights orchestrated by Tim Man, takes an easy sardonic charm and batters his way through a series of great fights (a mano-a-womano against Johnston is the highlight, even compared with Adkins fighting Spawn and Darth Maul at the same time).
What was impressive here was a clear progression from Savage Dog to Accident Man. It would seem too that, progressively, Johnson has been afforded more creative freedom too. The next film was another 80’s throwback with Adkins and Johnson producing an enjoyable, if routine, buddy up film. Adkins paired with Louis Mandylor (in excellent form) for The Debt Collector. If it had been made in the 80’s or early 90’s you’d have seen Nick Nolte or Bruce Willis playing Mandylor’s burnout. Adkins would have been a comedian, but flipping things and having a martial arts maestro to deliver some typically impressive fights makes a nice change. It may not be as well weaved as Accident Man, and has the feeling of a bit of a gap filler between that film and Triple Threat, but it’s simple and done well. Another solidly enjoyable offering benefiting from a fine cast (including Tony Todd, Michael (M.f) Pare and Vladimir Kulich.
Triple Threat, promising a Martial arts filled equivalent to The Expendables had the most buzz from any of Johnson’s previous projects. Among action fans around the world, there was plenty of hype (even if it was beginning to dissipate given the length of time between first trailers push and final release). With Iko Uwais, Tony Jaa, Tiger Chen, Michael Jai White and Scott Adkins all converging in the same film, carnage was inevitable and on that front, with more Cannon Films vibes, Triple Threat delivered. Somewhat disappointingly, having taken a while to come out, despite the buzz from fans, the film wasn’t backed enough and pushed for the kind of release it probably deserved. Solid reviews greeted it and it does what it says on the tin. Maybe with such 80’s/90’s video sensibilities running concurrently with the Dirty Dozen/Wild Bunch sensibility, it was perhaps always destined as a video special. Still, with the talent of Uwais and Jaa as the principles, and Adkins as bad guy, its another example of not quite enough studio belief given to those guys as big screen commodities and in a rare occurrence, the dream face offs within the film do not disappoint. Jaa vs Adkins in particular is fantastic.
With Triple Threat now hitting video-on-demand it will undoubtedly satisfy the home market. At the same time of course, the latest Johnson/Adkins teaming, Avengement has also arrived in the UK. Receiving great reviews and many pointing to a possible career best performance from Scott Adkins (though myself, I’m torn between this, Accident Man and Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning), Avengement’s brutal and savage simplicity is its greatest strength (and probably weakness to those who aren’t tuned to the genre). It’s got a kind of relentless insanity and wall to wall action that something like The Raid had. The fights are great, the support cast is top notch (Craig Fairbrass, Thomas Turgoose and Nick Moran appear among others) the score is awesome. An array of influences from Guy Ritchie, to Scum, to pinches of 70’s exploitation or 80’s video nasties are sprinkled over a frenetic tale of Adkins led vengeance.
The next one up for Johnson sees him temporarily part company with Adkins, with Legion Maxx, starring the original Johnson leading man of choice, Dominiquie Vandenberg (Pit Fighter) and beyond that, surely more projects with Adkins beckon. He’s championing the kind of old school action films that a fan such as myself, really enjoy. As a writer in fact, the kind of stuff I love to write (though the ones which don’t get picked up). Despite the demand still remaining for these pictures, the backing doesn’t quite seem to be there, but perhaps the likes of Adkins (and some of the old guard like Stallone) are slowly turning it back around again.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/