To average moviegoers, the names Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, Tiger Chen and Scott Adkins mean little — even though they’ve seen them all, if only for a blip, in the biggest blockbusters of the past 20 years. To sommeliers of straight-to-VOD martial arts… well, those names suggest a quite robust vintage of ownage — brought together here in what should be a very red blend.
Instead, director Jesse V. Johnson — working alongside history’s most inexplicably summoned sextet of writers — has bottled throat-burning rotgut to retail at $6.99 for a rental and $12.99 to own. Rarely has a film failed so miserably at capitalizing on its raison d’etre as Triple Threat.
More than two-thirds of the movie passes before any bloody battle royale begins. It’s like buying ringside seats to Wrestlemania and trying to muster enthusiasm for Roman Reigns and A.J. Styles circling each other for 75 minutes before making contact. Or if The Expendables assembled all that aged beef only to have them flex their jaws more than their muscles. The final 15 minutes are decent and it’s a fun showcase for Chen (without whom it would be unwatchable). But the inertia here is not only indefensible but infuriating.
How else to feel about an introductory grapple that pits Jaa’s muay thai against Uwais’s joint-manipulating, jaw-smashing pencak silat for the first time … and ceases it with an explosion? Or a later fight featuring Jaa that ends when Uwais sneaks up to shoot the burly lackey Jaa is pummeling? There are scores of straight-to-VOD movies with overweight yokels getting their gun off. Screw the firepower. Give me the fists and feet.
The plot of Triple Threat boils down to warring trios. In this corner: Uwais, Jaa and Chen as unlikely allies trying to save a Chinese heiress who wants to use her inherited fortune to take down crime syndicates. In this corner: Adkins, brawler Michael Jai White and former UFC champion Michael Bisping as mercenaries hired by said crime syndicates to kill said heiress.
For a movie so marbled with fatty flashbacks, Triple Threat can’t even figure out how to use them to keep us on our heels about the feints at an Infernal Affairs / Departed-style shell game of allegiance. Then again, the problem isn’t a lack of plights, it’s a lack of fights. Before the hour mark, only two fights register with any semblance of pulse or personality — both involving Chen, the physically smallest presence here and eminently root-worthy with his Lloyd Christmas haircut. You feel this protege of Yuen Woo-ping (choreographer of The Matrix) taking over his scenes alongside Bisping, and his fleet-footed kung fu soft shoe recalls heyday Jackie Chan. Adkins also executes a baller flying-somersault kick in a too-little, too-late takedown of Jaa and Uwais.
Beyond that, Triple Threat is otherwise utterly undeserving of its stars considerable’ talents and affirms that Johnson (who made last year’s lousy Accident Man with Adkins and White) is a carpetbagger on the combat-film circuit. Was Isaac Florentine, the director who more or less launched Adkins’ career, on vacation at the time? Did Ip Man impresario Wilson Yip say no? Did anybody call, say, the person who did behind-the-scenes photography on The Raid? That person had to have picked up something better by osmosis alone.
Speaking of The Raid: There is no need to further discuss how Triple Threat confuses two pumps, a squirt and a rollover with the stuff you really crave. If you’re curious, though, as to why the idea of this movie was exciting, know you can’t go wrong with any of these nine titles. Try both Raid films and Headshot for Uwais, Ong Bak and Skin Trade for Jaa, Man of Tai Chi for Chen, and either Ninja film and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning for Adkins. Just hope that someone can someday unite these stars’ formidable talents in something that isn’t a futile waste of time.