'John Wick: Chapter 4' scene-stealer Scott Adkins talks cryotherapy sessions with Keanu Reeves, killing Jean-Claude Van Damme in 'Universal Soldier 6' and playing Deadpool before Ryan Reynolds
The veteran martial artist walks us through his best fights, from "John Wick" to "Doctor Strange."
Even at 46 years old, Scott Adkins can't stop getting into fights. Not that we'd want him to. For two decades, the British martial artist has been one of the most in-demand cinematic fighters around, throwing hands (and feet) in Hollywood blockbusters like Doctor Strange, Hong Kong spectacles like Ip Man 4 and low-budget, high-impact pictures like Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. In the process, Adkins has battled everyone from Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen to Hugh Jackman and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Now here comes John Wick: Chapter 4 where he fights two equally formidable opponents: Keanu Reeves... and pounds and pounds of prosthetics. The fourth installment in the John Wick franchise enlists Adkins as Killa, a 300-pound Berlin-based killer — think part Bond villain and part Sydney Greenstreet from Casablanca — who Reeves's increasingly weary assassin has to terminate on his road to the film's climatic duel.
As to which foe was tougher — John Wick or the fat suit — Adkins tells Yahoo Entertainment that the suit won hands down. "It was hard to move in there," he says of the layers of prosthetics applied to his body over the course of multiple hours every day. "It's a lot more weight, and it pulled down on my shoulders, my spine and my lower back. I would also heat up as well, so I had this cool suit beneath it with a tube-like thing coming out of my ass. Whenever I got too hot, I would have to plunge it into an ice bucket to cool down."
Reeves similarly kept it cool between scenes, often retreating to his tent for some much-needed cryotherapy treatments for the various aches and pains the now-58-year-old star has sustained across four John Wick movies — not to mention his other action favorites like The Matrix movies and Man of Tai Chi. And Reeves frequently invited Adkins to join him in the cryo tent. "He'd put this cryotherapy device on all of his injuries," Adkins recalls. "He was always telling me, 'Use it, use it!' You can see that he's feeling it — he's constantly tired on set, and he's probably still got injuries from years ago. But the guy's a machine: He doesn't complain or quit; he just gets on with it."
"There's a lot of actors who would not feel like that," Adkins continues, no doubt speaking from personal experience with other would-be action stars. "They would be calling for their stunt guy! But Keanu wants to do this. He doesn't need to do it, but he loves action movies and he appreciates the position that he's in. He wants to entertain the audience and he will destroy his body for them if he needs to do that."
Because Reeves is an action machine by this point, Adkins says that he never broke down mid-scene and accidentally decked his onscreen foe with a for-real kick or punch. But there was one painful moment that wasn't in the script. After slaying Killa with a move that sends him plunging to his death, Wick has to rip the corpulent crime lord's golden teeth out of his mouth as a evidence of a mission accomplished.
"Keanu put his hand in my mouth and clamped down on my lip really hard," Adkins says now. "He didn't mean to, it was just one of those things. So in the next shot, I rolled my mouth back to get my lips out of the way, and that's what you see in the movie."
Speaking of Killa's fatal fall, that's the only part of the fight that Adkins doesn't perform himself. "That was a stuntman," he confirms, adding that John Wick director Chad Stahelski did initially offer him the chance to do a different version of that fall. "Originally, Killa was going to die after rolling down the stairs, and Chad said: 'Do you wanna do it? I'd like you to do it.' I told him, 'I'll do it for you, but I don't want to do it before the fight sequences just in case I get injured.' I didn't want to be injured for my fight in a John Wick movie! Looking back, I think Chad was testing me!"
We put Adkins's memory to the test for a new variation on our Role Recall feature. Welcome to Fight Recall, where the martial arts maestro walks us through some of his best-ever onscreen bouts.
The Medallion (2003)
It's the dream of every young martial artist to go toe-to-toe with Jackie Chan. And Adkins earned that opportunity early on in his career when he landed a supporting role in The Medallion, the 2003 Hong Kong hit that also scored a successful stateside release. But as soon as he stepped onto set, he immediately realized that he wasn't going to be shaking hands and snapping pictures with his idol — he had to prove to Chan and everyone else that he belonged there.
"It's a hard vibe on Hong Kong movies because they don't mess around," he says. "You need to be good, and if you don't get the choreography right after a few takes, you're in trouble. Nobody is there to be your friend: They're all there to make a great martial arts film." The filmmakers dangled a particularly tantalizing prize in front of the then-27-year-old Adkins to ensure he wasn't going to mess around. If his first fight with Chan went well, he'd get to come back at the end of the movie to be the final guy the star had to duel.
That initial Adkins vs. Chan bout — which takes place aboard a ship — demonstrates all the elements that distinguish the Hong Kong icon from other martial arts stars of his generation. Where fighters like Bruce Lee would stay planted and strike poses throughout a fight, Chan is constantly looking for an escape route, a specific approach to fighting that allows for a potent blend of comedy and action. "That's what's great about Jackie Chan, right?" Adkins says with admiration. "Instead of taking the fight to the guy, he's the one that's trying to get away. He's stuck with that style and became a huge star.
"That fight on the ship was one of the greatest days of my life," Adkins continues. "I remember that I had to back-kick Jackie at one point, and I didn't do it hard enough on the first take because it's Jackie Chan! I didn't want to be the guy that gets shamed in the end credits reel kicking him in the face. But [Hong Kong legend] Sammo Hung was the fight coordinator and I didn't want to let him down. So on the second take, I found the sweet spot and they were like, 'Perfect, moving on.'"
That simple statement was also acknowledgement that Adkins had passed his trial by fire and, as promised, his character returned at the end of the movie for a rematch with Chan. "That was my first true test," he says now. "From having all these dreams as a kid of maybe one day fighting Jackie Chan and then I got to do it and pass with flying colors." That dream also had an equally happy epilogue: In 2017, Adkins appeared alongside Chan at the Jackie Chan Action Star Awards, where he won two statues. "I've got nothing but respect for the man," Adkins says, clearly moved. "He's been lovely to me."
Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2006)
It's one thing to know how to convincingly throw a punch — knowing how to convincingly take a punch is what really separates a serious action star from a pretender. And Adkins expertly absorbs a number of heavy blows in the sequel to the beloved 2002 Wesley Snipes/Ving Rhames prison boxing movie, Undisputed. "A lot of action stars are great at dishing out a beating, but not so good at taking one," he says, laughing. "But I went to the Far East and did these Hong Kong movies where I was tossed around and learned how to take a good ass-kicking. So I'm good at both!"
Modeled on the fight movie formula made eternally popular by Rocky III, the Undisputed II casts Adkins as the Clubber Lang-esque Yuri Boyka, a Russian muscleman who decisively defeats the movie's hero, George Chambers (Michael Jai White) in their first match, and then gets walloped the second time around. Just as Clubber has become a stealth favorite over the years, though, Boyka proved so popular with fans that he went from heel to hero in the third Undisputed movie where Adkins was front and center for one of his first starring roles.
"That was just an accident," the star insists now. "I put on as much muscle as I could to play this character that we kind of based on [MMA star] Chuck Liddell and conceived of being this intense, imposing villain. I had to look like a legitimate threat to Michael, who was massive in that movie. But because we also gave him this sense of honor and dignity, the audience attached themselves to him even though he's the bad guy! I wish I could tell you that I knew it was going to work out that way all along, but I didn't."
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
True story: Ryan Reynolds technically isn't the first actor to play Weapon XI aka Deadpool on the big screen. That honor goes to Adkins, who played the strangely silent version of Marvel's Merc With a Mouth at the end of the misbegotten Wolverine prequel. Reynolds makes his debut as Wade Wilson earlier in the movie and also filmed close-ups as Weapon XI for his climactic brawl with Hugh Jackman's clawed mutant. But those close-ups were shot after Adkins had already filmed the full fight scene opposite Jackman.
"Ryan was off doing that Sandra Bullock movie [The Proposal]," Adkins recalls now. "I wasn't expecting Weapon XI to appear the way he does in the film. I thought I was gonna be in the Deadpool costume! Instead, there I was with swords coming out of my fists and rays out of my eyes. I was like, 'I don't know about this, but they these high-paid Hollywood producers know more than me, I'm sure!'"
The Weapon XI/Wolverine fight was choreographed by Adkins's Undisputed II collaborator J.J. Perry and the two of them — along with Jackman — worked hard to deliver a brawl that would compensate for the odd version of Deadpool they were saddled with. "There was a grip in my hand that I had to hold, and then the blade would be sticking out. As you can imagine, you've got this long heavy blade, but you're gripping it with a very thin bar! So every time I swung it, it would dig into my knuckles, and when you'd stop it would dig in the other way. It was painful, but we had to get on with it. But it was great working with Hugh; because of his musical theater background, he's able to remember fight choreography very easily, so that was a pleasure."
Of course, Reynolds later cracked the Deadpool code — in the character's classic costume this time — for the 2016 blockbuster and its 2019 sequel. And now he and Jackman are reuniting for Deadpool 3, which is set to arrive in theaters in 2024. Asked whether he hopes his version of Weapon XI scores an invite to that sure-to-be-epic rematch, Adkins says they should stick with the continuity established in that hilarious Deadpool 2 post-credits scene where Reynolds's Deadpool mercilessly kills the X-Men Origins Deadpool.
"When I saw that, I was like, 'Nice one, Ryan,'" Adkins says, laughing. "If he'd given me a phone call and said, 'Scott, can you come in and reprise that character because I need to kill you,' I would have said, 'I'm there, mate. I needed to die.' So I apologize to all the Deadpool fans, but that job got me my Screen Actors Guild card, so it all worked out."
The Tournament (2009)
As a vocal supporter of equal rights between the genders, Adkins made sure he didn't take it easy on Kelly Hu when they faced off in The Tournament, which features the X-Men 2 star as an assassin caught up in a deadly competition staged for the rich and powerful. Adkins's Yuri Petrov is one of the adversaries she has to overcome to ensure her own survival. "I was kicking the crap out of her, wasn't I?" he jokes. "I gave her no quarter! But she was wonderful to work with — a bit nervous at first, but it was a nice fight. She was like, 'You're not going to hit me, are you?' And I said, "No, you can trust me that's never going to happen. If you make a mistake, I'll be there to stop it."
Hu is one of several contemporary actresses who have thrown themselves into action movies in a big way. That list is topped by Charlize Theron, who has headlined the hard-hitting trio of Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde and The Old Guard, and Halle Berry, who fought alongside Keanu Reeves in the third John Wick movie and famously entered the MMA ring with her directorial debut, Bruised. Unfortunately, the rise of the female action hero has also been met by heckles in some quarters of action movie fandom, with those (mostly male) critics complaining that many of their victories are "unrealistic."
For his part, Adkins says that the tone of the movie is what makes or breaks a credible female action star. "Atomic Blonde is very believable," he says. "The way Charlize takes on all those men is all about grit and determination, as well as the fact that she's skilled and won't quit. She gets the crap kicked out of her, but she keeps going and gets the job done against the odds. I buy that, and I believe it."
In contrast, Adkins points to the Charlie's Angels movies from the early 2000s as an example of less convincing female action heroes. "It's fun, but it's not believable," he explains. "You can see how hard Charlize has worked on the training and to perform the action on camera in Atomic Blonde. If it's Charlie's Angels, I don't buy it when they're doing this kind of weak fist stuff. That choreography just isn't designed well enough for a woman fighting a man."
That's why he and Hu sought to ensure that the tone of their Tournament fight stayed grounded and real, even if the movie itself has a wild premise. "She's able to spin around my head with these Lucha Libre moves and that's what throws me off," he notes. "When we're standing there trading blows, I'm getting the better of her, because I've got more strength. But she's slicker and more innovative — going under my legs and spinning around my head, figuring me out in a smart way. That's more interesting than the two of us punching each other, and you believe it more."
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)
In addition to enjoying taking a good punch, Adkins also enjoys performing a good death scene. But not every action star is as comfortable when it comes to meeting their maker onscreen. Case in point: Adkins says that a fair amount of advanced discussion was required when Universal Soldier star Jean-Claude Van Damme returned to the franchise for the sixth installment, only to die in the final fight. "Van Damme's not been killed very many times in his career — it was a new thing for him," he remembers. "There was a whole negotiation about how that would go down."
Directed by John Hyams, Day of Reckoning is widely considered the best entry in the Universal Soldier franchise — not to mention one of the finest contemporary action movies around. A big part of its appeal is the way it brings serious Apocalypse Now vibes to the original RoboCop-like 1992 movie that starred Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as reanimated soldiers Luc Deveraux and Andrew Scott, respectively. Adkins plays John, an amnesiac who comes to learn he's a synthetically-created warrior. In the film's final act, he faces off against the two O.G. Universal Soldiers, who are now being hunted by the very government that created them.
"Dolph loves a good death scene, as do I," Adkins says of his bout with Lundgren, which ends with the Rocky IV fan favorite shot in the head and stabbed in the jaw. But Van Damme wanted Deveraux's death to be more personal. "We came up with this concept where he almost lets me kill him," Adkins says of the coda to their fight, where Luc — whose face is painted Colonel Kurtz style — all but invites John to stab him through the stomach with a sharp blade.
"That worked great for the film, and to Van Damme's credit, he knew it all along," Adkins muses. "And I like to think that wasn't the real Luc anyway: I think he's a clone of the real one and the real one's still out there somewhere. Universal Soldier 7 anyone?"
Doctor Strange (2016)
Nearly a decade after his X-Men Origins experience, Adkins got a second chance to make a Marvel-ous first impression. Marvel Studios initially approached him about appearing in an early version of Captain America: Civil War that swapped in a super-soldier final boss in case Robert Downey Jr. decided not to reprise his role as Iron Man for the final phase of The Infinity Saga.
“Captain America and the Winter Soldier were meant to go up against a super-soldier, and they were talking to me about that role,” Adkins remembers. “Then they switched it to be Iron Man, which is obviously a much better ending with the emotional stakes and everything. But at the time, I was gutted because it looked like it was gonna happen for me.”
That near-miss is one of the reasons why Adkins grabbed at the next Marvel opportunity that came his way: playing Lucian Aster, one of the mystical henchmen that takes on Benedict Cumberbatch’s sorcerer-in-training in Doctor Strange. It’s an opportunity that he now has some regrets about.
“I shouldn’t have done it,” he says candidly. “I was supposed to have dialogue, but it got cut out. And in the script, the character was called Strong Zealot. I told them, ‘I’m not playing Strong Zealot — his name is Lucian. They would put Strong Zealot on my trailer, and I would rip it off and write Lucian on it. Looking back, I should have waited for a better opportunity. I’ve played henchmen in a lot of those bigger movies: It’s not happening again — give me a proper part or see you later. Don't even contact me.”
Despite being underwhelmed by his Doctor Strange character, Adkins did enjoy the opportunity to experiment with multi-plane action choreography that incorporated the title character’s powers, allowing for fights that play on walls as well as ceilings as the various environments rotate and shift.
“We spent a lot of time in prep learning how to run down a hall and then up a wall on a wire,” he says. “Gravity would be pulling me one way, and then you’d have to lean your head the other way so you could run straight along the wall. We spent a lot of time doing that.” Marvel also created a digital double of Adkins for the more elaborately animated sequences. “At first I couldn’t tell which was which,” he jokes. “But then I saw the one with the crap hair and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s me.’”
Ip Man 4: The Finale (2019)
Adkins isn’t the only veteran screen fighter making his John Wick debut in the fourth film: Stahelski also recruited Hong Kong legend Donnie Yen to play Wick’s former friend-turned-reluctant pursuer, Caine, who accompanies Wick to his confrontation with Killa. It's a brief reunion for the duo, who previously battled in Ip Man 4, the capper to Yen’s beloved franchise loosely based on the life of real-life martial arts legend who famously trained Bruce Lee in the Wing Chun style.
Set in '60s-era San Francisco, the film features Ip Man dealing with America's pervasive anti-Asian sentiment, embodied in the hulking form of Adkins's racist gunnery sergeant, Barton Geddes. The two finally face of in climactic duel that showcases their dramatically different sizes and fight styles.
"There was some negotiation about what my character's style was gonna be," Adkins says now. "I'm the racist white guy that talks down about Eastern martial arts, but I'm also obsessed with karate! That didn't make sense to me. So we settled on this amalgamation where I love karate, but it's built on a wrestling base, as well as boxing. And because I had this karate style with big looping blocks, Donnie used these quick barrel punches. He's so fast — just on another level."
The fight ends with Ip Man taking Geddes to another level, too... specifically the ground, where he unleashes those barrel punches. "I'm covering up my head, but he's just smashing his fists into the bone on the back of my neck," Adkins says, laughing. "I was like, 'I just want this to be over!' The Ip Man movies are just the best."
Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday (2022)
As he’s gotten older, Adkins has made a point of exploring opportunities behind the camera — a path charted by many screen fighters before him, including Stahelski who directed the first John Wick after decades as a stunt performer and choreographer. The Accident Man movies are part of that shift, with Adkins taking on co-writing duties in addition to starring in both the 2018 original and the recently-released sequel. Inspired by a British comic strip, both films follow hitman Mike Fallon, who is able to avoid detection by making his assassinations appear to be accidental.
Hitman Holiday’s centerpiece sequence is a bout between Adkins and rising Vietnamese action star, Andy Long, that hearkens back to the Jackie Chan-style fights from earlier in his career. “It’s a proper Hong Kong-inspired fight sequence, which is correct for the tone of Accident Man,” he explains. “It’s bigger than life, it’s out there — Andy and I choreographed it together, but he very much chose the angles and edited in his head. He’s got that Jackie Chan sensibility, which works so well for the movie.”
With the Accident Man screenplays under his belt, Adkins’s next goal is directing a full feature, a goal he admits he’s been procrastinating on. “I just need to dive in,” he says. “I’ve already directed and edited some of the fights in my movies anyway. I’ve always thought, ‘I’ve only got one shot at this, so I better not mess it up. But I want to get on with it — age is a real thing in the stunt world.”
At the same time, he’s not admitting that he’s down for the count. “Any young guy out there thinking, ‘Ah, you’re getting old,’ well guess what? Your are, too!” Adkins says, laughing. “You’ll be my age one day! And how will your 46-year-old body compare to my 46-year-old body — that’s the real question.”
John Wick: Chapter 4 is playing in theaters now.