Star stuntman Scott Adkins: ‘Oscars for John Wick 4? That would make sense’
Scott Adkins never wanted to be known as a stuntman. It could mean a swift boot to the jugular of his legit acting credentials. As the British action star says, he’s “a little bit niche sometimes”, but over 20-plus years Adkins has fought for a significant spot in the genre. Adkins is a master of the nails-hard, straight-to-DVD beat ‘em up; an occasional Marvel henchman; and now a scene-stealing crime boss in John Wick: Chapter 4.
Adkins admits that despite the resistance to the stuntman moniker, he is one regardless – “I am a stuntman,” he says, “I’m one of the boys” – but it’s a rep built from his own films. Indeed, while action fans are conditioned to spot the stunt double in Hollywood punch-ups and set pieces – sticking out like a particularly sore thumb among the crafty edits – what sticks out in Adkins’ films is Adkins himself. He’s doing it all. His arsenal includes taekwondo, kickboxing, kung fu, ninjutsu, judo, jiu-jitsu, wushu, jeet kune do, capoeira, krav maga and karate – some practised since childhood, some picked up along the way.
Adkins recalls being once invited to lunch by Chad Stahelski, the stuntman and stunt coordinator who went on to direct all four John Wick films. Stahelski wanted Adkins to represent his action design company 87Eleven in Europe as a stuntman.
“Chad, I really appreciate it but I don’t want to be a stuntman,” Adkins told him. “I’m following my own path to be an actor that does his own action. If the casting directors see stuntman on my resume, they won’t think of me as a real actor.”
“With films on your resume like Ninja 1, Ninja 2, Undisputed 2, 3, and 4, do you really think they don’t think of you as a stuntman anyway?” replied Stahelski.
Adkins – a down-to-earth chap from Sutton Coldfield, with a Brummie twang in his civilian voice – looks back at the conversation and laughs: “I was like, ‘Yeah you’re right…’”
Now 46, Adkins got his start in Hong Kong. Since then, he’s rubbed shoulders – not to mention traded punches and kicks – with action icons and relics, who, in their autumn years, are often cast as fodder for cheapie macho sequels. See Adkins starring alongside childhood hero Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren on Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (aka Universal Soldier 6). Adkins is pragmatic about not quite being a household name – unless your household has a shelf of DVDs which are called things like Pit Fighter, Dead Reckoning, and Savage Dog. “Some people say if I’d done this in the 1990s it would have been a different story,” he says. “I’m hoping for more recognition. I’m good at what I do. I want more people to see it.”
That’s certainly about to happen. Adkins declined Stahelski’s stuntman offer, but now – a decade or so later – Adkins has a breakout role in John Wick: Chapter 4, fighting opposite Keanu Reeves. Adkins plays German baddie Killa, a fat-suited, gold-toothed end-of-level boss. Wick must fight Killa to get a shot against Bill Skarsgård’s main villain, the Marquis. Shuffling cards, monologuing, and getting into it with Wick hand-to-hand, Killa is like a Bond villain who’s not only on steroids, but a high cholesterol diet too. “Killa was once a feared and revered assassin, but obviously he’s let himself go,” Adkins said previously.
Stealing the show in the hard-fighting underworld fantasy of John Wick is not easy. This is a series in which Reeves’s melancholic hitman kills an average of 1.5 baddies per minute. And Wick’s brand of gun fu – i.e. finding new, creative ways to shoot somebody in the head – is rousing stuff.
Killa comes on the back of controversy over The Whale, which saw Brendan Fraser pull on a fat-suit (and win an Oscar). The criticism is that fat suits mock larger people – historically rolled out for a Nutty Professor-style lampooning. Killa is not not played for laughs. He’s a fat bloke who gets shot up the backside, after all. “You’ve got kung fu, gun fu… now you’ve got fat fu,” jokes Adkins. But martial arts aficionados will know that the character, decked out in a purple suit, is partly a homage to plus-sized Hong Kong legend Sammo Hung in the Donnie Yen film, SPL: Sha Po Lang.
In the not-quite-reality of the John Wick-verse, Adkins' performance is more than comedy foil. Killa embodies the series’ knowing, rampant ludicrousness. Levity – or making action actually fun and self-aware – has been a mark of Adkins’ more recent films. Most notably the Accident Man series, which Adkins also co-wrote and produced. “Up until about 2016, there was no comedy in anything I ever did,” he says. “I had to play the straight-faced action hero which is insanely boring and cliché.”
It took Adkins three-and-a-half hours to get into the fat-suit and prosthetics. The suit was flexible enough (“I could do the full splits in it,” he says) but the weight and heat were a challenge. “You don’t want to get fat-suit stroke,” he says. The suit was equipped with a cooling element: “Like central heating. You’ve got this tube that looks like it’s coming out of my bum like a colostomy bag. You'd plug that into a bucket of ice water.”
The set for the fight, a nightclub adorned with waterfalls, cost $10 million – five times the entire budget of Adkins' award-nominated film, Avengement. The fight itself was done on the fly. Keanu Reeves, who has trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu for the John Wick films, is so proficient that there was no need to “previs” (lay out and rehearse) the fight ahead of time. “Keanu is so well trained now, he’s almost like one of the stunt guys himself,” says Adkins. “Whatever you throw at him, he’s ready to deal with it at this point.” He adds: “That’s a testament to Keanu. You can do that – throw him in at the deep end and he’s going to be ready to go… We were just making it up as we went along on this one.”
Adkins knows about going toe-to-toe with A-list names. He was accidentally kicked in the balls by Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum. He battled across the astral plane with Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange. And he fought tooth and nail with Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: Wolverine – before Wolverine decapitated him.
“You’ve got actors who have played around with action movies – learned a bit of this or that – and do a good job within the boundaries of what’s expected,” says Adkins. “Keanu’s on a different level. He’s trained up. The stuff that he does with the guns, that is hard work – repetition, repetition, repetition – putting in the hours with the guns. And to get that good at judo and jiu-jitsu.”
Adkins began training in martial arts aged ten and got more serious after being mugged at the age of 13. He turned his dad’s garage into a dojo, where he set up a little shrine to Bruce Lee and trained every night – a real-life origin story for a future action hero.
It was the Schwarzenegger-Stallone era of hyper-pumped, sweaty-muscled action stars. Adkins’ favourite was Jean-Claude Van Damme. “The physique of Arnold but the martial arts of Bruce Lee,” says Adkins. Van Damme’s Bloodsport, released in 1988, came at a formative time for Adkins. Bloodsport, often credited with popularising MMA, became a cult favourite on home video – arguably the template for the kind of ultra-masculine fight films in which Adkins often stars, mostly made for DVD or streaming.
Adkins got his break after being spotted by Stephen Tung Wai, the head of the Hong Kong Stuntmen Association, and Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan. In Hong Kong, Adkins worked with Jackie Chan after just two films. “You dream about the opportunity to go up against these guys,” he tells me. “You have so much respect for them as martial arts performers. Then before you know it, you’re on screen fighting them. This is the test! Everything you’ve dreamt of. Are you good enough in this moment?”
In 2006, Adkins played Russian convict/MMA hardcase Yuri Boyka in Undisputed II: Last Man Standing. He became the franchise player – the lead star for the next two Undisputed sequels. Other low-budget franchises followed, including the Ninja films, which Adkins ranks among his toughest jobs. “I really hurt my back on Ninja 2,” he says. “But the train doesn’t stop. You’ve got to keep going. Are you going to cut out fight scenes? Or just take the pain and get through it? You can guess which one I went for.”
It’s not just money at stake on these low budget films, Adkins explains, but his reputation too. “That film’s going to come out whether you like it or not,” he explains. “So, you’d better make it good.”
In terms of bigger-name franchises, Adkins points to The Expendables 2, which featured a line-up of heavyweight relics: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Jet Li, Chuck Norris, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. By that time, Adkins had worked with Van Damme on several productions. “I was in awe of him when I first met him,” Adkins says. “When we were both on the set of The Expendables, you’ve got Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Stallone. All of them are there. I remember looking at Van Damme and he was more nervous than me!”
Adkins fights Jason Statham, who (like Wolverine) decapitates him. Statham – a glowering chunk of raw charisma, whose obvious love of action has earned a semi-ironic following – is perhaps the next step up: the level of stardom and notoriety that Adkins should be enjoying. “I do feel that I have been underappreciated somewhat,” he says. “I hope that can change.”
When Adkins first got into the business, his perception was that British stuntmen were lacking in fight skills. “It was more about the horse riding – ‘Give me a broad sword and a shield!’” Adkins says. Now, it’s different. “At this point, any stuntman in any country understands the importance of martial arts,” he says. But 20 years ago, he became the stunt coordinators’ go-to man – even though he didn’t want to be a stuntman. “I was always getting the call from coordinators,” he says. “‘Can you come and do stunts for X-Men or this and that?’”
Adkins was conflicted but did take some stunt double jobs – most notably doubling for Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. (Though Adkins gets full credit as “Weapon XI”.) “I convinced myself it was going to be like a Darth Maul [the Star Wars villain played by martial artist and stuntman Ray Park],” says Adkins. He was also cast as a stunt double for Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises. Adkins put on the bat-suit and rehearsed for weeks, but he tore an ACL and had to make a bat-exit before shooting any scenes. In 2013, he auditioned for Batman proper – the iteration ultimately played by Ben Affleck. Some corners of internet fandom have championed Adkins as a Batman. He’s certainly got the skills and Bruce Wayne looks – like a chiselled, hunky Rob Brydon.
What’s interesting is that due to his skill set, Adkins operates across a spectrum that goes from straight-to-DVD fare – low-budget actioners and British geezer films – to major blockbusters. It’s hard to think of many actors who cover that kind of ground.
“I wish it was by choice!” he says, laughing. “I wish I could just say, ‘You know that movie you want me to make for two million? I’m not gonna do that, mate. I’m on a 100 million one with all the trimmings and craft services.’” Though Adkins also admits: “It’s a lot of fun doing the smaller ones. You get to be more creative in some ways.”
Among Adkins' best low-budget films are the Accident Man films (based on an early ‘90s comic strip) from 2018 and 2022, about an assassin whose hits are staged to look like accidental deaths. Co-written and produced by Adkins, Accident Man feels authentically Scott Adkins. In the second film, Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday, he goes mano a mano with actor/stuntman Andy Long – four minutes of furious, fun, self-aware fighting.
At one point, Long whips off Adkins’ jacket and puts it on himself – all while they’re still trading blows. Adkins usually works with a fight arranger, but took the reins on putting the fight together. Shot in just two days, it’s as good as anything seen in a major action film. The fact that we’ll never get an Accident Man vs John Wick crossover is a crime against action cinema.
Another film, Avengement, sees Adkins play an escaped prisoner who targets the villains that double-crossed him – including geezer film stalwart Craig Fairbrass. When asked what he’s bringing to the action game Adkins is modest – “I wish I could say that I brought something to the genre that no one else was doing,” he says, “because that really is when you can have an impact” – but he admits that Avengement is a significant achievement: a film made in just 17 days for £2 million.
“Maybe that’s what I’m bringing to the table at the moment,” Adkins says. “To pull that out of the bag, I just wish I would get more opportunities to have a bit more money and a bit more time. Maybe I can do something that changes things and stands the test of time. At that budget level you’re just trying to make the day.”
The final fight scene in Avengement – a brutal, weapons-filled showdown in a pub, in which he takes on an entire firm of hard-nuts single-handedly – was filmed in two days and was nominated for Best Fight at the Taurus World Stunt Awards (alongside John Wick 3, Hobbs and Shaw, and eventual winner Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).
Surely, it’s time for the Oscars to follow suit with an award for action and stunts? It's a glaring omission. “At this point it just seems so disrespectful,” says Adkins. “It’s like the elephant in the room. How could you not give these guys an award?” Particularly at a time, I suggest, when the likes of Tom Cruise doing his own stunts has become part of the industry narrative – part of his films’ drawing power. Though he stresses it's as much about the anonymous stunt teams behind the big stars: “It’s the money-making engine of Hollywood. It just seems so odd that it doesn’t get recognised.”
Adkins – a proud recipient of two Jackie Chan Action Movie Awards (for Undisputed IV) – believes that John Wick: Chapter 4 is Oscar-worthy for cinematography and production design alone. “If it did [win those Oscars], surely that would make sense to anyone,” says Adkins. “But you don’t want to give the action an Academy Award? Why not? What sense does that make?” As Adkins points out, there’s an Academy Award for visual effects, but not the age-old art of stunts. “I would argue it’s much harder, what the stunt guys do,” he says. “Because they do it not sitting down at a table.”
Almost certainly, John Wick: Chapter 4 is a big moment for Scott Adkins, who – until now, perhaps – has been action’s most under-the-radar icon. “I can’t say that,” he laughs. Adkins is hungry for more but his ambitions are characteristically down-to-earth. As Adkins says: “I hope one day they’ll look back on my career and go, ‘Yeah, he was pretty good, that guy.’”
John Wick: Chapter 4 is in cinemas now