There’s no real shortage of action movies in the industry. The rarity, however, lies in seeing so many talented household names under one banner (save for The Expendables franchise of late) in a film like Jesse V. Johnson’s newest ensemble gathering, Triple Threat.
The film presents a familiar, albeit intriguing, classic betrayal/revenge story that dares to do what Hollywood thusfar won’t do; Granted, piting together the likes of martial arts action cinema favorites like Tony Jaa, Tiger Chen, Iko Uwais, Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White, and Jeeja Yanin doesn’t deem as lucrative in a market saturated by superhero movies coming out of its orifices.
Still, you can’t deny that a marquee like this isn’t mouthwatering, if only for the fact that once upon a time, a film like this would have seen a nationwide release as big as James Cameron’s True Lies or John McTiernan’s The Predator. A one-night only theatrical premiere in over one-hundred and fifty exhibitor screens could very well be the boost this film needs if successful and especially if we’re to see more like it. Not to mention the fact that a potential franchise was deemed hopeful per Deadline’s initial report back in 2017, and if that’s the case then beyond all else, with an Asian-fronted cast such as this, I wouldn’t protest.
As the story goes, the Southeast Asian territory of Maha Jaya is rife with injustice and crime. With the intent of bringing down underworld fervor and corruption and bettering life for children, Chinese real estate heiress Tian Xiao Xian (Celina Jade) has taken on the role of crusader, arriving in town to oversee the relinquish of her family’s fortune.
Meanwhile, we conevene with our stars in a Maha Jayan jungle where they’ve begun their violent descent on an MI6 Black Site, led by Deveraux (White). The fracas signals the first reunion of our principal cast with Payu (Jaa) and Lei-Fong (Chen) among the members of the team, eventually clashing with Jaka (Uwais) who just happened to be residing in the camp with his wife and his men working on the site.
The big double-cross isn’t revealed until well into a later chapter of this explosive thriller, but Jaka’s investigation sends him off to an illegal underground fight circuit in which he eventually spots Payu and Lei-Fong. After crossing blows with the latter in the ring, the two take Jaka to their hut as he heals from his earlier wounds.
Shared revelations about the doomed Black Site camp enjoin the three in their newfound commitment to bringing down Deveraux, along with formerly-emprisoned international terrorist and mercenary, Collins (Adkins). Not one to stop making things interesting, however, Jaka goes rogue while Payu and Lei-Fong suddenly land in jail for their minor illegalities. At this point, Xiao Xian is underway with a television interview about her endeavors, and her security detail is suddenly ambushed before she escapes to the nearest police station.
With the tenacious Collins in hot pursuit, a non-stop hunt ensues, eventually reunites old frienemies. Xiao Xian crosses paths with Payu and Lei-Fong amid a hail of bullets and fisticuffs and their spur-of-the-moment the rescue force the three to survive on their own while the maverick Jaka, keeping ever close an eye on Collins and his team, plans his next move.
As a filmmaker, Johnson’s near three-decades of stunt industry experience lend themselves greatly to his cause. While not all of his films have been critical successes, the past several years are telling a provenly better story for Johnson whose keen sense of storytelling and action directing have become all the more stronger. Specifically, it’s arguable that getting to collaborate finally with Adkins in 2017 for the spectacularly violent Savage Dog helped influence things, mometuously sparking another fan-favorite star/director partnership.
Their on-set camraderie continued on the Thai set of the Jaa/Uwais/Chen-starrer, and in opportune fashion, led to the momentous additions of White, Ms. Yanin, and star MMA fighter-turned-actor Michael Bisping; The cast, all new to its members apart from the relative film DNA connecting some through titles like Tom Yum Goong 1 & 2, Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing, Metal Hurlant Chronicles, Man Of Tai Chi, Hard Target 2, Skin Trade and xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage, also enlists the recognizable likes of action stars Ron Smoorenburg and Johnson’s Pit Fighter star, actor and ex-legionaire soldier Dominique Vandenberg.
Lesser known about the plot is what we see in actress Monica Mok whose villain role, Feng, is still wrapped in mystique by the end. She’s a puppet master pulling the strings but there’s little, if anything, to base on her presence in the film except that we generally know that she’s evil and cares nothing for Xiao Xian’s altruistic causes, or safety and well being for that matter.
Feng’s first scene is a phone call with Old Man, another shadowy figure played by Hong Kong star Michael Wong who has several appearances in character throughout the film until his role comes full circle. The more Feng appears, the more we slightly start understanding the nature of her connection to the rest of the immediate principle villains, but even then this exploration of her character only goes but so far.
In contrast, that kind of minimal approach to the plot and character writing actually benefits Wong’s Old Man for our protagonists. One other outlier also foundates Chen’s Long-Fei character with a brief backstory to add some much-needed substance next to driving the plot forward with Jade’s Tian as the only two Mandarin Chinese speakers. Their levity increases overtime with colloquialism, allowing O’Bryan’s script to accompany some palpable humor along the way.
The action set pieces, masterminded by teams of Thai and Chinese cohorts with Kazu Tang, Luke LaFontaine and Tim Man running point on stunt coordination and fight choreography among their units, bodes a healthy balance of action scenery assortments that gives everyone equal time to dole out the hurt. The action is as violent as fans might hope – not as violent as the raucousing, action heavy horror that Iko’s character bore witness to in Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes For Us, but as gory as it needs to be on just a few occasions. One action star favorite gets the worst of it. And I mean, by freaking far, the WORST of it.
To Chen’s credit, he’s come quite far since his heyday under Master Yuen Woo-Ping’s stewardship on The Matrix films. After lead roles in films like Kung Fu Man, Kung Fu Traveler and Keanu Reeves’ reverent Man Of Tai Chi, Triple Threat is a cornerstone in Chen’s still-burgeoning career. With stars like Jet Li nowhere to be found and Jackie Chan always one stunt away from retirement, Chen can use the proliferation, and Triple Threat patently obliges.
Uwais and Jaa are much more discernible in their performances per O’Bryan’s script. Uwais’ Jaka is driven by vengenace, but methodical in his process. His psychological battle of wits with Deveraux is a service to the kind of dramatic gravitas Uwais proved capable of in Peter Berg’s Mile 22, sans the lowbrow bad-faith handling of Uwais’ fight scenes compared to how Johnson adapts, in which case, hopefully Berg will watch this with notebook in hand.
The action-packed finale is a fanboy’s wet dream, answering any number of hairbrained or otherwise ideal questions as to “who would win in a fight against who”. Most exemplary of this the accompanying excitement drawn from any number of photos gone viral featuring Adkins and Jaa in the last five years, which makes watching them on action the absolute treat fans crave.
Jaa is an alpha among alphas in Triple Threat, delivering one of the best performances of his career. The last seven years have allowed him to achieve more than he ever could under the auspices of Sahamongkol. After Skin Trade, his progression, having spanned from Hollywood to Hong Kong with directors like James Wan, D.J. Caruso, Soi Cheang and Wilson Yip, has fruitfully made him a sum of his achievements in Triple Threat. Like Long-Fei, Jaa’s Payu is a slightly laid back smartass with a sense of charm and a darkside, and when it comes time to throw down, idol threats be damned, he’s got no compunction for making you eat your words.
For his now fourth principal role in a Johnson film (discounting his minor role in Pit Fighter and the upcoming Avengement), Adkins continues to invoke the necessary tenacity it takes to entertain audiences. He’s no stranger to antagonistic fervor and obliges plentily to that effect in the role of Collins, a discernibly menacing villain apart from taking orders from the aforementioned Feng.
Celina Jade’s Xiao Xian is resilient and headstrong, though definitely a damsel in distress until she can hold her own. Her co-star Jennifer Yang plays Madame Liang who heads Xiao Xian’s security per the embassy’s request, and a formidable female presence on screen that would have been more worthwhile given enough screentime.
The crowdpleasing allure with Triple Threat is less in substance, though still an enticing sum of its ingredients. Going into the film’s third act as the plot becomes less about Tian’s crusade and more about our heroes and villains settling old scores, leaving plenty of space to kick back and relax as the action takes shape.
The barrier for entry into wider exhibitor releases notwithstanding, Triple Threat is a major raise in the benchmark for action cinema casting. Any other year we’d all be kings and queens of wishful thinking whilst continuing to yell at each other over who we’d want on our side in a brawl, choosing from a meme line-up that also presents anywhere from Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee to Donnie Yen like something out of a tag-team fighting game.
Alas, this is what makes Triple Threat the kind of film it is, bringing full circle the kind of cast servicing the kind of action entertainment delight that fans crave. Save for its few creative frills in story and character development, the fact remains as I’ve so Tweeted: If you’ve been loyal to these action stars throughout their careers with the hopes of ever seeing them on the big screen together, director Jesse V. Johnson’s efforts will reward you handsomely.