Several weeks ago I came down with a bad throat cold. Somewhere between my third and fourth mucinex, I rented a movie I had heard about on Twitter entitled Castle Falls. Martial artist Scott Adkins plays former martial artist “Mike Wade” who discovers a bag of drug money while gutting an old hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. When a gang shows up looking for the cash, he must fight his way out. The movie opens with a bunch of production credits from companies like BondIt Media Capital and VMI Worldwide. It has a blues rock soundtrack. Adkins keeps his British accent, and at one point kicks a guy down an elevator shaft. Oh yeah, and it was directed by co-star Dolph Lundgren.
It’s also my favorite action movie of 2021. The setting is grubby and feels real, the fighting is close-quarters and raw, and Lundgren stages it in a series of reasonably long takes, the better to let Adkins show off his martial arts prowess. The film knows what its audience wants, and what it doesn’t: fights show up at a regular clip, backstory is convincing but pro-forma, we’re in and out in under 90 minutes.
Bulky, bearded, and from the other Birmingham, Adkins might be familiar to some moviegoers as a henchman in movies like The Expendables 2 and X Men Origins: Wolverine. But for fans of low-budget action movies, he’s a star. Around the turn of the century, Adkins got his start on British TV, before leveraging his martial arts skills to play a series of cannon-fodder roles in Hong Kong action films like The Tournament and Unleashed.
Over the next couple decades he’s gone from goon to grandee of the genre. In the past five years alone he’s played a major role in 17 movies with titles like No Surrender, Dead Reckoning, and Avengement. Even if I can’t vouch for every film, I can for Adkins, who can be both charming and vicious, a kind of beaten-down sadness trapped within his muscle-bound body. So too for Castle Falls, in which he quite convincingly plays a down-and-out temp worker who, despite his ripped physique, is in way over his head.
The self-described “king of the low-budget sequel,” he has taken over franchises like Hard Target and Undisputed in their direct-to-video eras. Yet it is Adkins, not the IP, who is the draw. His films often resemble throwbacks to an earlier era of action filmmaking, in which a movie could be premised around getting a single martial-artist into as many scrapes as humanly possible. Directors are drawn to him and fellow DTV stars Michael Jai White and Iko Uwais because of their fluid skill and sheer physicality. In Adkins’s work with directors like Isaac Florentine, the camera lingers over his poise, swinging with movement and holding wide to better showcase the intricate physical choreography, bodies counter-weighting one another like dance partners. I sometimes find it hard to believe that such a large body could execute such complex aerial moves, but then these movies have a habit of slowing down to let you know that yes, they can really do this.
People bleed in these movies, legs break, teeth get smashed in. The violence here feels like violence.
That is the art to this sort of action. These movies fit a series of miniature dramas — a knife kicked, a cut to a thug behind a door — within the scope of each set-piece, small inflection points that swell and resolve, one after another, to extend a seemingly simple tension (will they survive?) for as long as possible. Where more popular directors make a hash of their scenes, cutting from camera to camera for fractions of a second each, skilled craftsmen like The Raid auteur Gareth Evans know to prolong takes to show the full impact of a blow, to move and flip the camera in concert with a body plummeting off a table. Evans and The Night Comes for Us director Timo Tjahjanto pick up the hand-held and glide freely throughout their fights, floating up to view the mass of bodies thrashing down below. Often free to thumb their noses at the MPAA, these films can become surreally violent, full of blown-up heads and ripped-out-throats and a truly shocking number of machetes. People bleed in these movies, legs break, teeth get smashed in. You feel every blow. The violence here feels like violence.
Compared with the plasticine weightlessness and visual incoherence of much modern blockbuster action, these sorts of films take the time to really show you what a human body is capable of. Consider this scene from the 2009 Michael Jai White street-fighting vehicle Blood and Bone. It’s a scene you’ve probably seen before, in which the blustery locals are shocked by this unknown’s skills. And yet director Ben Ramsey stages it as a series of dead-pan medium shots, so that when one-time Spawn star White begins knocking people out, we see the punch, as if we were right there, watching. When he starts kicking, the camera whips with his movement, adding extra oomph whenever his foot collides with some dude’s sternum. And as he advances through a crowd of gangsters, Ramsey holds firm, stepping backwards as White steps forwards, neither losing their cool, even when jump-kicking into four guys at once. The violence feels real, and yet it’s so easy to watch you might forget how complex the staging of such a scene can actually be.
Of course, I’ve mostly talked about the good parts. Even in the good movies, premises can be thin, plots are often ludicrous, and tropes abound: honor-bound ex-cons, dead wives, indebted prison guards with very sick daughters who need just a little more money for that big operation. Small budgets mean plenty of costs cut in terms of sets, extras, and performances. One of Adkins’s signature roles, the Ukrainian kickboxer Boyka, necessitates a cast-level commitment to terrible accents. In a movie like Triple Threat, you can almost count the number of fights permitted in each contract. Castle Falls folds them all together and tops it all off with a money-hungry white power gang and the hospital’s impending demolition, a pressure-cooker of convention.
Yet after watching enough of these movies, many of these flaws can become virtues of a kind. Tiny budgets can mean independence, and thin scripts can be turned on their head. When John Wick made the murder of a puppy its inciting incident, it was hailed as a new start for the genre, reducing the revenge plot to its essence. But an Adkins movie arguably got there first. 2012’s Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is the fourth direct-to-video sequel to a 1992 Jean Claude Van Damme/Dolph Lundgren vehicle, and one of the best American action movies of the 21st century. Adkins stars as a man who awakens from a coma, nine months after witnessing his wife and daughter murdered by intruders in the night. Adkins is weak and alone, and the only face he remembers belongs to the haggard, aged Muscles from Brussels. Overcome with rage and encouraged by his FBI tail, he goes off in search of the people who murdered his family.
Yet almost immediately, this stock premise goes off the rails. As he journeys in search of Van Damme, Adkins is confronted by people who seem to know him, though he has no memory of them. He finds himself stalked by a giant man in overalls, and has intensely strobing visions in which his own face is replaced by Van Damme’s. Mirror shots abound. "Even the movie's vision of the hardscrabble American south (a favorite of this genre) is decidedly uncanny, populated by a suspicious number of muscle-bound Europeans.
Again and again, director John Hyams twists the conventions of this sort of low-budget action filmmaking to his own purposes, crafting a genuinely Lynchian odyssey into the genre’s heart of darkness. Adkins seems like a stock character with a generic backstory because he literally is one, grown in a lab and implanted with just the traumatic memories to trigger action movie bloodlust. The undead nature of both star and antagonists allows them to take on sickening levels of abuse, which Hyams accents in neon and washes out with overhead fluorescence. He leans into the cheapness, creating sets that splinter beneath the weight of thrown bodies, the movie tearing itself to shreds in real time.
Castle Falls doesn’t have Hyams’s verve or vision. But it does have Adkins, and I would gladly take his raw physicality and lack of vanity over what Hollywood has on offer these days, all rubbery CGI and movie star egotism. He’s the sort of actor you half wish would become a bigger star, while also dreading the ever-worsening movies he would make if that actually happened. After all, sometimes all you need are bodies leaping through space, or at least someone kicking a dude down an elevator shaft.
Robert Rubsam writes fiction and criticism.