Tom Jolliffe looks at ten underrated action stars who deserve more love…
It’s a funny old business being an action star. You throw yourself around, kick people upside the head, try as best you can to prove you can emote as well as said kicking, and in the end, it’s in the lap of the Gods as to how successful your career is. Some have maximised or even exceeded that. The likes of Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris forged good careers with their own unique niche. For a time many of these stars have had a big screen appeal before becoming straight to video mainstays.
Even in video land, some very quickly find a willing audience there. Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson pumped out an eight-film franchise (alongside a three-film Ring of Fire franchise, two Cyber Tracker films and many more). For his own piece of pie, he definitely maximised his potential, and here are another ten underrated action stars who deserved even greater success.
A combination of good looks, gravity-defying physical prowess, martial arts skill and acting ability gave Mark Dacascos a big leg up in the early 90s. As has been the case for a few, those initial breakout films, so key in the longevity of a star (and placement on the big screen or video shelves), were a mix of unfortunate outcomes for varying reasons.
Only the Strong is a great Capoeira-infused riff on Dangerous Minds that deserved to be a hit but got a little undersold in its theatrical run. Crying Freeman suffered a similar, and despite the popularity and big screen releases in Europe, the film for atypically convoluted Hollywood reasons never got officially released in the US (eventually, some 20 years later it quietly landed on streaming).
Grim as it might sand, it might have been hoped that Dacascos could fill the void left by Brandon Lee, who was on the verge of a big break. Certainly, Dacascos’ talents haven’t gone unnoticed and as well as a standout role in the cult film Brotherhood of the Wolf, he’s had fleeting big screen roles as a villain in films like Cradle 2 The Grave and John Wick:Chapter 3 – Parabellum. His placing in the video premiere hall of fame should have been right at the top, but more money was being pumped into films for Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren et. al., and they had a stronger market pull.
Michael Jai White
Michael Jai White has occasionally suffered from his own versatility. Despite the big physique and lightning-fast martial arts moves, he’s proven adept in drama and comedy. As a character actor, he’s done the rounds, as a leading action man he’s had prolific spells and times where perhaps he’s been spreading his wings. His major break came with Spawn, a year prior to Blade essentially salvaging the comic book genre. Spawn flopped and despite some growing cult fandom (I dig it I must admit), Jai White is either masked or under heavy prosthetics for the majority of the film, making recognition difficult.
In terms of being legit and looking the part as a badass, Michael Jai White is equalled by very few and has the acting chops to back up the physical side. Like Dacascos, he deserved not only to have a bigger placing in the video premiere action wars but also more of a run as a big screen leading man. Still, along the way Jai White has had a few more cult favourites such as Black Dynamite (a great blaxploitation homage which spawned comics and a cartoon) and Blood and Bone.
When it comes to legit female action stars with great longevity there are probably only two in the modern era who are still going. You have Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock. Ironically they broke out in the same movie (Police Assassins). Rothrock’s early star-making run in Hong Kong cinema saw her become hugely popular there. She stood out, not merely as a rare female performer of that era (female action heroes have been historically popular in Chinese cinema of the past), but also as a Westerner. That 5-6 year period saw her work with the likes of Yeun Biao and Sammo Hung (almost with Jackie Chan too). The very best in the game sought her.
Her transition into American films was initially marked with promise, working with Robert Clouse (Enter the Dragon) on China O’Brien 1 and 2. She also had Lady Dragon 1 and 2 (the first being a Kickboxer riff). She proved hugely popular on video but producers still seemed to hedge their bets on the pull of a female action hero, and all too often she was partnered with a male star. Often times she outshone said stars and deserved more screen time. A potential William Friedkin and Sly Stallone starring role was in the offing, and whilst awaiting that to go into production she turned down, among other things, a third China O’Brien.
The big breakout film fell by the wayside, and though she carried on kicking out popular video premieres, like the Tiger Claws trilogy, and the cult favourite (so bad it’s good) Undefeatable, she deserved to be starring in bigger and better productions, even on the video level. Likewise in the nostalgic boom of recent times and comebacks for so many action stars (like The Expendables, John Wick), Rothrock, who’s got more presence than many of her male contemporaries, has not (as yet) been called.
After a handful of parts, Phillip Rhee broke out with the cult favourite Best of the Best. It did okay on the big screen but became huge on video, during a time when there was a boom in martial arts films thanks to Van Damme and Seagal. Best of the Best featured no less than three prior Oscar-nominated actors and one winner in its cast list (Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Sally Kirkland and Louise Fletcher). It’s got elements of a Rocky-esque underdog story, largely focused on both the triumphant comeback of Alex Grady (Roberts) and Tommy’s (Rhee) quest for revenge turned redemption.
Best of the Best is elevated by the gravitas of the support, but as one of the leads, Rhee shows plenty of emotional range, some comedic timing and of course the requisite martial arts skills for the numerous bouts in what was one of the best martial arts films of the decade. A franchise followed with a sequel that followed much of the first film’s formula, before expanding into more generic action fare with Tommy facing off against Neo-Nazi’s and criminals. The third and fourth weren’t great but still fun and Rhee still had ample platform to show he was an engaging star. Then he just kind of disappeared. Whether by choice or not, who knows, but Rhee could have forged more of a straight-to-video legacy at the very least and pushed himself up, and perhaps beyond Don ‘The Dragon’.
Scott Adkins broke out at an awkward time in action cinema. His first major break was Undisputed 2, a sequel to a film about three people watched at the cinema where Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes duked it out as prison boxers. The second saw Michael Jai White replace Rhames, the setting switch to a Russian prison orchestrating illegal prison bouts, and Adkins star as the Ivan Drago of the prison underground fighting game. Boxing gave way to MMA. Ultimately to his own detriment, Jai White decided to maintain the boxing for his character, keeping his impressive kicks out of the game almost until the last few rounds of the final bout. What this did was negate his on-screen razzle-dazzle, but further emphasise this new kid on the block pulling unbelievable moves.
Undisputed 2 far exceeded expectations and essentially launched a franchise from there. It’s hugely popular and Adkins’ Boyka is a straight to vid MMA film icon. The sad part is, that all of Boyka’s outings were ravaged by piracy, almost curtailing the third and fourth films (the lack of a fifth may well be because of that too). Adkins though has done what almost no one else has done since 2005. He’s launched himself as an action star, shown longevity and has risen to the top of the pile.
Where he’s not quite been fortunate is in that next step up, as a big screen star. A few small villain roles aside, he’s never had a leading role. We’ve had flirtatious rumours of being the next Batman, and he’s going to be given time to shine in John Wick 4, but Adkins deserves to be leading more prestigious movies. He’s got the charisma, presence and ass-kicking abilities to do so, particular at a time when the streamers are pumping big amounts into exclusive movies. Sure, you could watch Ryan Gosling go through the motions and pretend to be a physical beast, or you could get Adkins.
In the early 90s there was a calculated move from studios to find the next Seagal, Van Damme etc. Among the likes of Brian Bosworth, you had Jeff Speakman, who had the perfect start with The Perfect Weapon. Speakman was initially compared with Seagal. He was going to do for Kenpo what Seagal did for Aikido as a big screen spectacle. To an extent it worked. The Perfect Weapon didn’t set the world alight on the big screen but was huge on video (I recall it having a poster in my local video shop and catching the eye).
The success lead to a number of potential gigs, but studio switch-around put Speakman’s follow-ups under the eyes of people who had different ideas. His next film (Street Knight) wasn’t soon enough to strike while the iron was hot, and was also significantly cheaper. Almost as soon as he’d begun, Speakman was thundered down to the video realm and quickly dipped in a pack with guys like Gary Daniels and Don Wilson. He had a short run before dropping out of the game (in 2006) early for a number of personal reasons. Nothing else came close to the auspicious Perfect Weapon sadly.
Looks like Jon Hamm, fights like Van Damme. Daniel Bernhardt’s career as an action star began with the lead in a (soon-to-be) established franchise. A blessing and a curse, but Bernhardt came out the blocks with Bloodsport 2 to 4. Inevitably comparisons with Van Damme (star of the iconic original) were inevitable. Between those, he starred in a string of video premiere action films. He etched his way alongside contemporaries like Gary Daniels. A starring role in the Mortal Kombat: Conquest show brought a little attention, but the show only lasted 22 episodes before being canned. Just a few years later Bernhardt had a fateful call to appear as an agent in The Matrix: Reloaded. To an extent, he was a featured role but essentially a stunt man too. It effectively saw him take on stunt work and henchman roles as a speciality.
Ironically, Bernhardt’s abilities and experience as a leading man held him in good stead. He’s played a number of featured fighter roles in films like John Wick, Atomic Blonde and Nobody which are elevated because he’s a stunt guy who’s a good actor. Every now and again he has a slightly more prominent role (the recently featured villain in Hell Hath No Fury). Whilst Bernhardt has enjoyed that transition, he certainly had the potential to maintain prominence and prolific output as a leading man. Ultimately too, his featured big-budget Hollywood roles have actually been more consistent and eye-catching than Scott Adkins’, whose highlight remains The Expendables 2.
Roddy Piper had an ideal beginning as a movie star. He starred in a classic John Carpenter sci-fi action film which displayed not only his rugged physical qualities on screen but a natural movie star presence. They Live didn’t quite hit the ground running though, but the video run was great. In time, it found a big cult following. By the time everyone figured out how great it was, and indeed Piper in the lead, he’d already been relegated to straight to video films, even struggling there to get a run of decent leading roles (highlights including Marked Man, Tough and Deadly and Jungleground).
The film he did after They Live was a similar story. Hell Comes to Frogtown began as an oddity which escaped the attention of big screen audiences, but slowly gathered a cult following. The late great Piper sadly left us well after his leading man status had dried up. His action man legacy deserved much greater and he should at the very least have swung at the level John Cena and Dave Bautista have.
Jason Scott Lee
Jason Scott Lee had a good start to life as the potential next star on the block. He starred as Bruce Lee (no relation) in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, an enjoyable, glossy and lavishly budgeted fantasy that delved into folklore and Lee’s legacy. After, he starred as Mowgli in an adaptation of The Jungle Book. The latter wasn’t that successful on the big screen sadly. Sandwiched between them was Rapa Nui, a rousing epic romance from Kevin Reynolds whose film bombed spectacularly, only for him to bomb even more infamously with Waterworld the following year.
As for Jason Scott Lee, he worked solidly, popping up in Soldier opposite Kurt Russell, but was soon relegated to video parts or smaller supporting roles (in a number of Disney animations). With the looks, acting ability and physique, he was canned as a studio lead a little too quickly, not given the same kind of grace periods some of his white counterparts undoubtedly had. The initial faith shown, was too quickly eroded.
Thomas Ian Griffith
From soap star to villain in The Karate Kid Part III, Thomas Ian Griffith headed into the 90s and soon grabbed the attention of execs looking for the next big thing in action . Ulterior Motives, Excessive Force and Crackerjack had all the makings of being a launch pad. There was a Seagal-esque vehicle (Excessive Force) and a Die Hard riff (Crackerjack). It just didn’t quite happen, and no box office traction ultimately saw the dashing and charismatic Griffith consigned to low-budget starrers, a good role in Carpenter’s Vampires, playing the villain in a straight-to-video Timecop sequel and a prologue death in XXX.
Despite underrated highlights like Hollow Point (a really fun action comedy co-starring Tia Carrere, John Lithgow and Donald Sutherland), Griffith didn’t get as many amply budgeted leading roles as he deserved but has recently enjoyed a step back into the limelight reappearing as Karate Kid villain Terry Silver in Cobra Kai.
Richard Norton (a reliable bad guy and buddy partner who despite being legit badass was too rarely the leading man), Chuck Jeffreys (an Eddie Murphy look-and sound-a-like with great fighting ability, but mostly a stuntman), Jerry Trimble (cut his teeth in Hong Kong, had a bit part in Heat and a few straight to video fighters and became a decent character actor, but didn’t get enough leading roles), Loren Avedon (the No Retreat No Surrender sequels launched him, but he was too rarely given the lead despite an easy-going charisma), and Darren Shalavi (looks, charisma, physique, the late and vastly underrated Shahlavi tended to used as a villain more than a leading man).
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Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out around the world, including When Darkness Falls, Renegades (Lee Majors and Danny Trejo) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan), with more coming soon including Cinderella’s Revenge (Natasha Henstridge) and The Baby in the Basket (Maryam d’Abo and Paul Barber). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.