Scott Adkins is still hyped for the 1994 Jet Li movie, Fist of Legend.
The film's final fight — where Jet Li squares up to Billy Chow in a Japanese dojo — is one Adkins often revisits on YouTube. "I'm a bigger fan of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung," Adkins tells Inverse, "But my favorite fight ever is in Fist of Legend. The end fight is a perfect fight."
Adkins has spent years striving toward the harmonious relationship between choreography and cinematography exemplified by Fist of Legend. He's made his mark with a decade of old-school action movies that serves as counter-programming to algorithmic superhero blockbusters. On IMDB, Adkins' filmography brims with direct-to-DVD fare like Assassination Games (2011), Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013), Close Range (2015), and Triple Threat (2019).
Whereas mainstream action is full of masks and green screen, Adkins likes to do things on camera. The old way. The Jackie Chan and Jet Li way.
"There's nothing better than action done on camera. Nothing can beat that," Adkins says. "You know it's real."
With the release of his latest film, the espionage thriller Legacy of Lies, the martial arts actor is now trying to shift gears. He's not turning away from action entirely — Legacy still has Adkins doing what he does best, which is to kick butt — but he is being more prudent about the projects that come his way.
"The days of doing films full of action for the sake of action are behind me," Adkins tells Inverse. "I want a good character and a good story I can get behind. That's what I'm looking for. You can't be doing somersaults forever. You do get older."
It's not just semblance of prestige that the direct-to-DVD veteran is trying to achieve. It's also a survival strategy. Adkins is the last action hero of his kind, and he knows it.
"The days of the action star are finished," he says. "The comic books came along and CGI made it possible to replace someone's face. They get a stunt guy to take off the hood and it's an Oscar winner. People don't care, I suppose. But I care."
After a mugging at 13, Adkins devoted himself to martial arts. He took up Taekwondo and earned his black belt at age 19. He'd later expand his repertoire to Muay Thai, Ninjutsu, and Wushu, to name a few. He started acting when he was spotted by Wei Tung, Head of the Hong Kong Stuntmen Association, and was cast in the 2001 Hong Kong film Extreme Challenge.
If Johnny Cage from Mortal Kombat were a real person, he'd look a lot like Scott Adkins. "I consider myself a tool in a director’s medium," he says. "I don't know if kids today appreciate what I do, but I make films for myself, what I want to see and that's what I hope to continue to do. I have fans who step up for me."
Adkins has shared the screen with famous faces like Matt Damon (The Bourne Ultimatum), Hugh Jackman (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange), Michael Keaton (American Assassin), and even Jet Li (in Unleashed).
Though he's starred more than 20 movies, he still feels ignored by the overlords of Hollywood. "I'm still waiting for my shot," Adkins says. "I feel like I've been a little hard done by. I feel I haven't had a fair crack of the whip."
"Scott doesn't get the credit for his acting that he deserves," says Legacy of Lies writer and director Adrian Bol. "He's one of the world's top martial arts performers. Unfortunately, in these films you don't always get the opportunity to show your acting. He has a very strong presence on camera."
In Legacy of Lies, available July 28 on DVD, digital, and video on demand, Adkins plays Martin Baxter, an ex-MI6 spy living off the grid with his daughter, Lisa (Honor Kneafsey). When a journalist seeks Martin's help solving an old case, he and his daughter end up in the crossfire of UK and Russian intelligence.
Legacy of Lies is through and through a Scott Adkins joint, with plenty of underground cage fighting and MMA-inspired choreography aficionados of his work come to expect. But the movie also contains more thespian work from its star than its poster art may imply.
"I responded to the push-pull between my character and his daughter. He's a lost soul punishing himself. He can't escape what he did," he explains. "I've been able to choose better scripts recently. That's what I'm doing as an actor to show that side of me, and I've been finding more opportunities to do that."
"When I met Scott, he told me he was attracted to the dramatic aspects of the part," Bol says. "In most action films story isn't the main focus. From the first day, Scott became Martin Baxter. From that moment on, I knew the film would work."
Through Adkins, the spirit of the traditional action genre lives on, despite the industry forcing it onto life support. He says more people are finding his movies through Netflix, but the business end of things has become steadily more challenging.
"When I started, a film going straight to DVD could have a budget that gives seven, six weeks [to shoot]. Now you're having to do it in four weeks, three, sometimes less," he elaborates. "Budgets are tighter and schedules are tighter. Then you have someone download your movie for free and complains it looks cheap."
Superheroes have killed the action hero defined by Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Van Damme. Adkins has never put on a mask himself, save for the time he was Ryan Reynolds' stunt double as the unpopular Deadpool in 2009's X-Men Origins.
"When I saw what they'd done, I was baffled," Adkins remembers of the ill-fated interpretation. "It wasn't really Deadpool."
Adkins bears no resentment for superheroes. He likes superhero movies as much as anyone, and sure, he'd like to be one himself. Still, he wants the industry to preserve a place for "the real deal." He credits Keanu Reeves and the John Wick series for keeping the fires burning. In 2019, Adkins lived out a dream working with Yuen Woo-ping, the one responsible for that beloved Fist of Legend scene, for the Donnie Yen feature Ip Man 4.
"You would be a fool not to do what he tells you," Adkins recalls of their collaboration. "It was a real honor to be in a proper Chinese kung fu film. They don't make them like they used to. I tried to learn as much as I could."
Maybe one day Scott Adkins will really show the world what he's capable of. "Being honest with myself, I would be a real good Punisher."
Legacy of Lies will be released on July 28 on DVD, digital, and video on demand.