A Toast, To Scott Adkins And BOYKA: UNDISPUTED

The English martial artist is a great action star, and his Most Complete Fighter in the World is his best character.

Scott Adkins is, with the possible exception of Jason Statham, my favorite Western action star. Like Iko Uwais, Statham and Van Damme it’s a pleasure to watch Adkins move. He might be wielding an arsenal of ninja weapons to avenge a murdered loved one, or turning the tables on a party of ultra-rich bores who hunt humans for fun. Whatever the tale may be, a new Scott Adkins movie is good news to me. This has been a month for good news. Savage Dog, which Evan saw and dug at Fantasia Fest, has just arrived on streaming platforms. And, after six years and a tour on the festival circuit, Yuri Boyka, Adkins’ signature role, has returned. Boyka: Undisputed was finally released on home media and streaming platforms last week.

Adkins’ skill with multiple martial arts allows choreographers and directors to create a wide range of in-fight narratives for his characters. Over the course of his career, he’s dominated fights, he’s struggled with fights, and on occasion he’s been outright pummeled. And he’s made all of them feel genuine, even if the story context for a fight is unreal or bombastic. Though Adkins is known for his breathtaking spin kicks and flying kicks, he’s avoided saturating his oeuvre: each one is a thrilling invocation of his iconography, rather than a lazy fallback to his greatest hits as a martial artist.

Adkins has also done very fine work with weapons and stunts. It takes real skill to use guns both like someone who has had weapons training and like someone who has only the vaguest idea of what he’s doing. And it’s no small feat to make a larger-than-life duel between one man and an SUV full of armed goons work. With the exception of Adkins’ heavily made up, overly CGI-assisted turn as Weapon XI in the misbegotten X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I’ve enjoyed every piece of action work I’ve seen him do onscreen.

Beyond his action stardom, Adkins is a reliably good actor. When he’s played the lead in an archetype-heavy story, as in Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, Close Range and Hard Target 2, he’s done well selling the pathos and determination that comes with those roles. When Adkins has popped up in blockbusters, he’s been a memorable part of the ensembles. He doesn’t speak much as Mads Mikkelsen’s chief goon in Doctor Strange, but he’s impressively tenacious, and proves to be a worthy physical comic when his character gets smacked silly by the Cloak of Levitation.

But when he gets a chance to do more distinct, unusual films, he really shines. Consider, for instance, his best work to date: his lead performance in John Hyams’ magnificent, surreal and terrifying Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. Adkins plays John, a grieving man whose grip on reality and sense of self unravels as he hunts a super soldier (Jean-Claude Van Damme, in one of his finest late-period turns) he blames for his family’s murder. Playing John requires Adkins to move between grief, numbness, uncertainty, despair, confusion, full-blown insanity, and ultimately weary radicalization. (And also, technically speaking, more than one character.) It’s an extremely complex role, and Adkins nails it. Not only does he play a complicated part well, he plays it well while working alongside action stalwarts Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, who have themselves become strong actors as they’ve aged.

And then there’s Yuri Boyka. The villain-turned-hero of the Undisputed sequels and self-styled “Most Complete Fighter in the World” is Adkins’ iconic character. With three movies, Boyka has had more space to grow and change than Adkins’ other roles, become more distinctive as a character with each film. Boyka’s arc in the Undisputed movies has simultaneously played to Adkins’ strengths and pushed him to do more as both a martial artist and an actor.

Boyka begins his run in Undisputed II: Last Man Standing as a brutal villain. He fights hard and flashy. He seeks out a fight with Michael Jai White’s falsely imprisoned George “Iceman” Chambers to prove that he can defeat a world champion boxer. Boyka’s victory would prove to the world what he already knows: he is “the Most Complete Fighter in the World,” successor to the great fighters from Muhammad Ali all the way back to the creators of Kung Fu. Yet when he learns that his goon squad drugged Chambers during their first fight, he’s insulted, infuriated and accepts a rematch. Even as a bitter, angry man, he retains some honor: he will prove his might to the world, but he will do it cleanly, so that there’s no room for doubt.

As the villain of the first Undisputed and Last Man Standing’s gradually-redeemed protagonist, Chambers learns from his loss and comes to the rematch prepared. Boyka, by contrast, coasts on his skills and the certainty of his superiority. Much to his shock, his arrogance has consequences. The better-prepared Chambers ultimately wins the fight by breaking Boyka’s knee and leaving the would-be champion a sobbing mess. Boyka’s a fairly simple villain, but his clear motivation, absolute conviction and hints of honor give Adkins material to craft a memorable performance, one that laid a strong foundation for what was to come.

Like Chambers before him, Boyka moved from villain to hero for the next entry, Undisputed III: Redemption. Isolated and forgotten, Boyka has abandoned his arrogance and become introspective and self-doubting. He casts off conquest, working to rehabilitate his knee and return to fighting to reclaim his self-worth. He knows that he’s an exceptional fighter, but wonders what he is beyond the Most Complete Fighter in the World.

At an international underground prison fighting tournament, Boyka faces Dolor (Marko Zaror, magnificently slimy), a foe very much like the man he once was. He also finds a friend, perhaps the first he’s had in his life, in an American fighter called Turbo (Mykel Shannon Jenkins, bombastic and thoughtful). Skullduggery infests the tournament: while Dolor loads up on PEDs and reads poetry, the warden assigns hard labor to his opponents, who conveniently disappear when they lose. Inspired by his friendship with Turbo and determined to frustrate the warden’s machinations, Boyka helps Turbo escape and stays behind to fight in the tournament, keeping its backers more focused on the big-money bout than on tracking the escapee.

In Last Man Standing, Boyka’s rigidity as a fighter doomed him. In Redemption he gets creative, fighting with a bad knee against opponents who are often stronger and faster. He uses his foes’ strengths against them with throws and grappling, targets their weak points for the spectacular punches and kicks he can still do without overtaxing his knee and, in his final bout with Dolor, improvises a knee brace that allows him to come back from a near knockout. Boyka ends the fight with a final clash that pits the knee he’d worked hard to rehabilitate and strengthen against an overextended kick from Dolor that was not meant to meet the resistance it does. Dolor’s leg breaks, and Boyka wins.

Infuriated, the warden tries to have Boyka killed. Boyka faces his impending death calmly. He has proven to himself that he is still the great fighter he believes it is his purpose in life to be, and he’s helped Turbo get to safety. His newfound decency is rewarded when Turbo intervenes at the last minute and kills Boyka’s would-be executioners, saving and repaying his friend. They part ways free men, grateful to have known each other, with a promise to have a fight on their own terms someday. Boyka, despite his limp, runs into his new life, laughing joyously and grinning ear to ear.

Redemption, to date the Undisputed series’ best, allows Adkins to take what he built in Last Man Standing and grow it into something new. As an action star, his fighting style is more complex and varied than it was in the first film. He gets to fight a wider range of opponents, among them a capoeira master (Lateef Crowder), in longer fights, each of which has a different internal narrative. As an actor, Adkins refines Boyka’s surliness into taciturn introspection, allowing just enough warmth into Boyka’s redemption to credibly leave him a psychologically healthier, happier man. Though Adkins’ best work tends to keep him fairly angry, it’s tremendously rewarding when he brings out real joy for Redemption’s last shot.

If Redemption saw Boyka regain his humanity and his dignity, then Boyka: Undisputed sees him find peace. Living free in the Ukraine, Boyka fights in semi-legitimate bouts and continues to search for the meaning of his life and his great skill as a fighter. Though acutely aware of his horrible past actions, he still dreams of glory and recognition. When he accidentally kills an opponent, Boyka is thrown off-balance. His dream remains within his reach, but at the cost of having permanently robbed someone else of that same dream.

Boyka learns that his opponent was married, and resolves to try and make amends to the widow, Alma (Teodora Duhovnikova), though his great tournament opportunity nears. He sneaks back into Russia, where he’s a wanted man, only to learn that a supremely loathsome mobster (Alon Moni Aboutboul) has forced Alma to assume her late husband’s debt. When Boyka learns the mobster runs an MMA club, he strikes a bargain with the man: Boyka will give him three fights in return for clearing Alma’s debt. The fights escalate in intensity while Boyka and Alma struggle to come to terms with both her husband’s death and each other, every step forward matched by a step backward. In an excellent monologue, Boyka admits that in his focus to attain his own dream, he had seen his opponent, Alma’s husband, not as another person, but only as something in the way.

Boyka continues with the fights, even when the mobster bends their agreement to insert a giant, borderline feral fighter nicknamed the Nightmare (Martyn Ford) as Boyka’s final opponent. That final fight costs Boyka the last bus to his tournament, and his subsequent battle with the mobster and his goon squad ends with his re-arrest and imprisonment, likely for life. But, having reached an understanding with Alma and getting her clear of the debt, Boyka is at peace with himself. His life’s dream was, in the end, both selfish and unattainable, but that does not mean that he cannot recognize and take pride in his own skill. And he does. Boyka closes with the title character returning to the prison arena and roaring in triumph, secure that he is the Most Complete Fighter in the World.

Boyka: Undisputed gives Adkins a great deal to do as an actor. He delivers his climactic monologue with sorrow and remorse, unthinkable in Last Man Standing and completely genuine in Boyka: Undisputed. It’s a great credit to Undisputed’s creative team that Boyka’s dramatic transition across these movies remains recognizably the same character. Adkins does very fine work outside of big show-stopping moments, be it repeatedly knocking out a persistent goon with more irritation than anything, throwing himself headlong into training, or just sitting and praying, trying to make sense of who he is. Yuri Boyka reads as a living, breathing character through moments that could easily – and mistakenly – be deemed inessential to the success of an action film. But because of the work done to make him a character, the action hits harder and lingers in the mind.

Just as Redemption upped the variety in fights from Last Man Standing, Boyka branches out from Redemption with fights against multiple opponents, the Nightmare fight against a vastly larger and heavier foe, and the longest non-fighting action sequence in the series to date. In the ring, Adkins is faster and hits harder than he did in Redemption, but he fights much smarter than he did in Last Man Standing. He watches his opponents, finds vulnerabilities, and hammers them. If he can’t use an opponent’s strength against them, he’ll wear them down. Against the Nightmare, Adkins pulls together every skill he has used in his previous fights, all while trying not to get hit too often by a man determined to turn him into a pancake. The post-bout fight with the mobster’s goons ends somewhat anticlimactically, but at its height it gives Adkins a chance to put his weapons and firearms skills to use in a way that he’s never been able to in any of the previous Undisputed films. Should the series continue, I’d love to see more action scenes that work in areas besides martial arts. Fights are always going to be Undisputed’s selling point, but a little bit of in-film variety makes them stand out all the more.

In Yuri Boyka, Scott Adkins has a character who he’s been able to grow from viciousness to decency through clean, clear, creative action. His fights are a pleasure to watch, and his character development makes him a memorable, distinctive, and ultimately very likable character. He’s iconic to Adkins for a reason, and he both plays to and pushes his actor’s strengths. Boyka has been, to put it simply, an absolute joy to follow: if his story continues, I’ll be very curious to see where Adkins takes him.