Direct Action: how stars like Scott Adkins are landing more hits direct to viewers

Scott Adkins as Mike Fallon and Faisal Mohammed as Yendi in Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday. 
Scott Adkins as Mike Fallon and Faisal Mohammed as Yendi in Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday

Action fan Justin LaLiberty talks to Scott Adkins and his collaborators about how streaming has changed direct-to-video action films—and why fans are the winners. 

“I noticed when the pandemic struck and no one was going to the cinema, there was a sudden uplift in interest in my movies because people were staying home and watching a lot of Netflix and thinking… ‘I’ll give this Scott Adkins guy a go’.”

That’s actor, producer and martial artist Scott Adkins, who stars in Section 8 and Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday, his latest action entries in a long line of credits in the genre. I am asking Adkins about how he has seen audiences change, and how direct-to-video (DTV) action films are accessed now in contrast to the past. His answer speaks to two aspects of the change in viewership—the vast pool of content for people to search through on platforms like Netflix, and the elephant in the room when discussing the film industry in the 2020s in any capacity: Covid. 

Action star Scott Adkins prepares for a scene on the set of Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday. 
Action star Scott Adkins prepares for a scene on the set of Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday

Only three years into the 2020s and, based on the ongoing “direct-to-video action cinema” list I’ve been managing on Letterboxd for half a decade now, there are already at least 165 applicable film releases. Compared to the seemingly meager 65 in the first three years of the 2010s, that’s nearly triple the output of action cinema in the direct-to-video space in a few short years—much of that the result of a wide range of increased content in the streaming space. 

Those of us who could be labeled as DTV action stalwarts have been preaching the virtues of these films for decades to anyone who would listen, to the extent that #actiontwitter has gained significant traction on that platform in recent years. It’s largely in the wake of the increasing popularity of films starring people like Adkins, but for those who have yet to be converted, the joys of DTV action cinema are many and infectious. 

Jean-Claude Van Damme as the newborn Replicant in Ringo Lam’s 2001 film. 
Jean-Claude Van Damme as the newborn Replicant in Ringo Lam’s 2001 film. 

Decades ago, during the VHS boom of the ’80s and ’90s and the massive and rapid adoption of DVD in the 2000s, the term “direct-to-video” was sure to elicit groans from consumers used to the sheen of mid- to high-budget Hollywood products. But it was a praiseworthy term for video store diehards who thought they had seen it all. The DTV space is ripe with discovery for newcomers and veterans alike, with nearly endless opportunities for something fresh to be uncovered. 

Take, for instance, the inspired sci-fi/martial arts/buddy movie amalgam of 1997’s Drive, starring Iron Chef himself, Mark Dacascos, or Ringo Lam’s artful 2001 Jean-Claude Van Damme action thriller Replicant, which doubles down on JCVD (he plays both a serial killer and a government produced clone) and pushes the very boundaries of what we can consider “action” in its broadest terms. 

Dolph Lundgren in Canadian director Sidney J. Furie’s Direct Action (2004).
Dolph Lundgren in Canadian director Sidney J. Furie’s Direct Action (2004).

Many once-marquee action stars, like JCVD and Dolph Lundgren, made an organic transition to DTV filmmaking in the DVD era, following diminishing box office returns for decidedly adult, consistently R-rated genre films with modest budgets. Rather than exist as hasbeens, appearing in watered-down studio re-hashes of their former hits, these actors entered an entertainment ecosystem built around the home consumer, where the stakes (and budgets) were intentionally lowered in favor of moving physical goods instead of selling tickets to an ephemeral experience. 

Amidst this sea-change in how a specific brand of action cinema was being produced and distributed, up and coming filmmakers like John Hyams and prior industry outliers like Isaac Florentine were having their work reappraised in online critical communities, spurring the great debate around “vulgar auteurism”. 

Not far removed from the concept of auteurism in general, the approach to attaching artistic merit to filmmakers like Hyams and Florentine, who in prior decades would have been considered directors-for-hire regardless of technical merit, signified that a new audience was diving headfirst into the DTV waters. No longer just a viewership composed of JCVD and Lundgren acolytes, well-known critics and savvy cinephiles were now watching, and discussing at length, the films via sites like MUBI and AV Club and publishing articles in renowned spaces like The New Yorker

Nearly a decade removed from the height of the vulgar auteurism discourse, which we can consider being Richard Brody’s The New Yorker piece on the subject, DTV has reached vastly new heights and record levels of audience support thanks to video-on-demand (VOD) and streaming video-on-demand (SVOD). 

In Paul W. S. Anderson’s Soldier (1998), Todd 3465 ranks mid on the Kurt Russell hair chart. 
In Paul W. S. Anderson’s Soldier (1998), Todd 3465 ranks mid on the Kurt Russell hair chart

The vulgar auteurs are still making films—including those who existed solely in the theatrical space like Paul W. S. Anderson, who may as well be the Pope of Vulgar Auteurism, if there ever was one—with both Florentine and Hyams releasing films in the 2020s, directly to video, of course. Only now, DTV is no longer synonymous with being low-budget or void of the hallmarks of major studio productions. They can be one and the same, depending on the platform from which they are accessed. 

In the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, DTV was easy to discern as being direct-to-video. But as media converges and becomes hypermediated, the term “video” starts to lose its meaning. What was once implying a physical carrier of the entertainment now, in most cases, implies a video signal carried across high speed wi-fi for means of streaming. DTV, like most things technological, needs an update: the old DTV was direct-to-video, the new DTV is direct-to-viewer. 

Adkins’ newest films, Section 8 and Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday, blur the lines of what film distribution has always been, giving viewers options for how they watch the movies by offering day-and-date releases in theaters and on VOD platforms. Physical disc releases are planned in following months, and herein is the largest change: what was once the signifier of DTV—the physical video—is now the last thing made available. The only thing happening directly at this juncture is the content being piped to the viewer, wherever they may be. 

Scott Adkins (as Leonard Locke in Section 8) has his eye on the target audience. 
Scott Adkins (as Leonard Locke in Section 8) has his eye on the target audience. 

As Adkins noted at the start of this story, the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed how viewers see films, likely permanently. Major tent poles originally intended for theatrical release, like Marvel’s Black Widow, found themselves premiering day-and-date (not unlike Adkins’ films) in cinemas and on streaming services like Disney+. Other films, like Paramount’s $200 million-budgeted The Tomorrow War, got sold to streamers such as Amazon Prime and forwent a theatrical release entirely. 

This is not entirely dissimilar to the ’90s, when DTV action films—a new release by PM Entertainment, perhaps—would share video store wall space with the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner. Now, Adkins and co. release their films day-and-date alongside movies with a hundred times the budget. (Day-and-date is when a title is released simultaneously on multiple platforms—usually in theaters and on home video.) It’s relatively uncharted territory in the DTV space, yet the audience remains for both. 

Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday follows in the footsteps of 2018 fan-favorite Accident Man, also starring Adkins, which was one of the rare films of its ilk to be embraced by both viewers and critics alike (it currently sits at a solid 3.1 of 5 stars on Letterboxd) despite bypassing a theatrical release. When I ask him about the desire to make a sequel to Accident Man, Adkins replies “When you’ve got something that’s popular, you want to hold onto that”. Not only does this speak to the increasing popularity of these films, it shows that their creators are paying close attention—and have been for a few years now. 

Scott Adkins as Mike Fallon and Sarah Chang as Wong Siu-ling in Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday. 
Scott Adkins as Mike Fallon and Sarah Chang as Wong Siu-ling in Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday. 

Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday is the latest DTV film that is a sequel to a prior film that also premiered in the home space. It’s a development that hasn’t been commonplace since the ’90s, as most 2000s and 2010s DTV sequels were for films that premiered in theaters, such as the onslaught of WWE-produced sequels to movies like 12 Rounds or The Marine

Adkins is an interesting figure in the continuously evolving space of DTV action cinema; he’s been a major component of these films for the past two decades, even collaborating multiple times with Hyams and Florentine, the vulgar auteurs mentioned previously. Discussing the concept of vulgar auteurism with me, Adkins remarks: “An auteur is a director that has complete control of the vision of his movie… so for me John Hyams is an auteur, he has very specific ideas and even if he gets a script that’s not his, he will meld it into something that is to his liking. He’s a real auteur.” 

Adkins talks some more about his career in broader terms, which, alongside dozens of films made for the DTV space, also includes Marvel films like Doctor Strange and small roles in major Hollywood sequels like Expendables 2 and The Bourne Ultimatum. His career is a showcase of the malleability of the genre and the performers within it—and of his unique skill set. (His regular co-star Lundgren told Letterboxd last year that Adkins is “a perfectionist”, revealing that if Scott is happy, “then I’m gonna be happy”.) 

Christian Sesma’s new globe-trotting espionage action film Section 8 is one of Adkins’ latest DTV projects. It’s the type of star-studded DTV film with a modest budget that would have fit well on video store shelves 20 years ago, with Adkins joined by a cast that includes Lundgren, Mickey Rourke and Dermot Mulroney, mixing the DTV action brethren with actors formerly revered for their work outside of the genre. (Though most Letterboxd reviews reserve their praise specifically for Adkins, as Justin McDonald writes: “They knew who to give the best action scenes to, because Adkins is such a star. He’s not in the movie much but he steals it.”)

“Rourke is just vibing and I love it.” —CandidCam on Mickey Rourke’s role in Section 8. 
“Rourke is just vibing and I love it.” —CandidCam on Mickey Rourke’s role in Section 8

Sesma’s film is a good example of the current state of DTV action in general—it mixes martial arts, car chases, gunplay and just about anything else kinetic that you can think of into a sort of highlight reel of chaos. This type of filmmaking is the closest approximation we have in the 2020s to what companies like PM Entertainment were doing in the ’90s, even if it may be, at least largely, in better taste. 

Unlike the ’90s though, Section 8 premiered day-and-date on AMC+ and in theaters. “It’s always an experience to see your own movies on the big screen,” Sesma tells me. “It is interesting because they feel different. It feels different in a theater than when you watch it at home. It plays different… you have to pay attention, you can’t be on your phone in a theater.” This is, in multiple ways, an interesting way to look at action films that many will not only solely experience at home, but wouldn’t necessarily see as being a theatrical experience. 

Sesma’s film is admittedly ambitious and shares more DNA with films like the Jason Bourne series than the stridently economical DTV films of the ’90s, but in the ’90s nobody had smartphones to contend with at home, either. Even so, says Sesma, “We’re all eventually viewing it at home. Unless you’re a Marvel picture, it doesn’t live in theaters too long. With something like this we know we’re lucky to get some limited theatrical release.” 

The DTV evolution isn’t exclusive to action cinema. All manner of genre cinema has been affected by the new means of access and increasingly nebulous release patterns by distributors, big and small. Though the media itself is changing, as is how it is delivered to the viewer, so are the viewers themselves. The audience that embraced DTV action films of the 1990s and 2000s are being joined by an increasingly tech-savvy and content-hungry audience on a global scale. They’re being fed multiple films in any given week, with day-and-date releases in territories worldwide, further democratizing how and what we view. 

Jesse Freeman (Michael Jai White) gets a friendly Welcome to Sudden Death (2020). 
Jesse Freeman (Michael Jai White) gets a friendly Welcome to Sudden Death (2020). 

Like just about any means of entertainment in the current zeitgeist, DTV action cinema in the 2020s is reliant on some semblance of nostalgia, hence a surprising number of sequels to theatrically released 90s films, like Universal’s sequel to the JCVD-starring Sudden Death, titled Welcome to Sudden Death, which trades the first film’s Van Damme for DTV veteran Michael Jai White. 

Rather than being immediately shrugged off, fans of the original tuned in, causing it to be the third most watched film on Netflix that week and leading Letterboxd member Justin Decloux to question why Universal wasn’t hiring White to star in all of their DTV sequels. Similarly, a surprise sequel to the Schwarzenegger box office hit Eraser, titled Eraser: Reborn and swapping Schwarzenegger for Dominic Sherwood, premiered in the top spot on HBO Max in its release week. 

Sayaka Akimoto is Lady Death in Sniper: Assassin’s End (2020). 
Sayaka Akimoto is Lady Death in Sniper: Assassin’s End (2020). 

Outside of the obligatory nostalgia cash-in (we’d be remiss to not mention the pair of 2020s sequels to SniperSniper: Assassin’s End and Sniper: Rogue Mission—the former of which Letterboxd member Matt Lynch calls a “tasty DTV morsel”), the DTV engagement with audiences follows similar patterns to the global theatrical box office. 

With major studio properties premiering on streaming platforms in the wake of Covid, it’s no surprise that DTV releases like Black Widow and The Suicide Squad top the selection of action films in the DTV space when sorted by popularity on Letterboxd. But when taking viewer ratings into account, we can see that two recent Scott Adkins films, One Shot and The Debt Collectors, have higher ratings—3.1 and 3.0 out of five stars respectively—than major budgeted films like Netflix’s The Gray Man or Amazon’s Tom Clancy adaptation Without Remorse. (Neither of those cracks a 2.8). 

Released a year ago as a winter Omicron wave spread, the James Nunn-directed One Shot impressed action lovers on Letterboxd with its continuous-shot narrative. “You get gun fights, explosions, martial arts and an epic scene when Adkins kills like 12 guys with a knife alone,” writes FistfulofFilms. “For a medium size budget film, One Shot delivers in both concept and execution. The action on the screen is relentless and it combines elements of 1917, Assault on Precinct 13, John Wick and Die Hard.”

Jake Harris (Scott Adkins) takes One Shot (2021).
Jake Harris (Scott Adkins) takes One Shot (2021).

Even though viewers may not be engaging with DTV films in numbers equal to their blockbuster counterparts—hundreds of thousands of Letterboxd views separate titles like The Gray Man and One Shot—it’s clear that audiences don’t perceive the lower-budget DTV action films as inherently inferior to the decidedly larger films they’re now sharing the same space with. 

Although Hollywood has encroached on the DTV action space, there’s still a lot DTV films can offer larger studios and stars in terms of lessons in action choreography and audience impact. Many DTV films—especially those on the lower-budget end of the spectrum—are still reliant on keeping action practical. The movies of vulgar auteurs like Florentine and Hyams are decidedly old school, showcasing the type of practical action and stunt work that Hollywood studios were putting on theater screens in the 1980s, before they embraced the burgeoning CG technology of the 1990s and beyond. 

This leads to a different type of thrill: we know these performers are taking a beating for us, the viewer. Every time a punch or kick lands with bone, it feels far more real than anything we are seeing shot against a green screen. 

Allison Janney as Lou, Jurnee Smollett as Hannah. 
Allison Janney as Lou, Jurnee Smollett as Hannah. 

Further than that, the DTV space is a great opportunity for a level of diversity increasingly ignored by major studios. Out of 2022’s DTV action slate, there are at least ten films prominently starring women, including Netflix’s Interceptor and Lou, with the latter also being directed by a woman. This isn’t an anomaly either; even as far back as the ’90s, the DTV space was more diverse with actors like Cynthia Rothrock and Billy Blanks offering a different type of action star to the muscular white men of their Hollywood contemporaries.  

DTV in its original manifestation—cheaper, quicker alternatives to major studio properties—was arguably cinema at its most democratic, allowing filmmakers from all skill levels to produce and distribute films to rental and retail outlets alongside multi-million dollar blockbusters. Now, the democratization extends beyond production and distribution of the films. 

It puts on the onus on the viewer to decide how to access these films, allowing them to simultaneously exist as ephemeral theatrical experiences on a grander scale, digital files for rental or purchase or, in the most analog fashion possible, as physical media for collectors to purchase for their constantly growing Scott Adkins or Isaac Florentine collections. Long live the New DTV. 

Section 8’ is on demand now; Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday’ is in select US theaters and on demand. 

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