Sunday Reads: The Pragmatic, Vulnerable Heroes Of Jesse V. Johnson

The prolific action director’s wildly varied protagonists share a relatable desire to just get through the day.

After years of buildup, Jesse V. Johnson’s Triple Threat has at last arrived. It’s a treat. The cast, a murderer’s row of great contemporary action stars, battle each other in a Rubik’s cube’s worth of pairings and settings. Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa spar during an assault on an MI:6 black site. Tiger Chen crosses hands with Uwais in an underground fighting tournament. Uwais and Chen team up to take on Michael Jai White. Scott Adkins faces Jaa and Uwais in the dining room of a long-abandoned mansion, and then engages Jaa in a final battle in the mansion’s flame-lit foyer. Johnson and cinematographer Jonathan Hall film the fights clean and clear, leaning in and stepping back as needed to capture each clash’s individual story. Uwais’ battle with Chen in an arena looks and feels different than Jaa’s climactic confrontation with Adkins. It’s darn good filmmaking, work that collaborates with Triple Threat’s stars rather than trying to talk over them or treating their tremendous abilities as martial artists apathetically.

Johnson has become one of my favorite filmmakers of the past few years - starting with 2017’s Savage Dog, I’ve at least enjoyed and often found a lot to love in every movie of his that I have seen. His collaborations with Scott Adkins are all (arguably save The Debt Collector) action films, but within that form he's demonstrated quite a bit of range. Savage Dog is a hard-edged, pulpy revenger. Accident Man is a faithful adaptation and impressive updating of Tony Skinner and Pat Mills’ bleakly satirical comic of the same name. The Debt Collector is a downbeat, melancholy buddy picture. And Triple Threat is a hybrid chase movie and martial arts showcase. As far afield as his movies may be from each other in mood and plotting, there are two really interesting commonalities in the methodology and storytelling of their fights and their character work.

When in battle, Johnson’s heroes are frequently and fascinatingly pragmatic. Like their actors, they’re spectacular martial artists, but they do not rely exclusively on those skills in battle. Outside of explicitly rule-based bouts, a Johnson protagonist’s primary concern when in the middle of a fight is not winning the fight but ending the fight. Given that his action sequences take a very real toll on his characters, this makes sense. Johnson’s heroes are iron-willed and thoroughly tough, but they have limitations. The longer a fight runs, the more likely they are to get hurt. And the more they get hurt, the harder the next fight (and there is always a next fight) becomes.

So, when Scott Adkins’ Tillman gets his hands on a gun in the middle of an intense hand-to-hand battle during Savage Dog’s climax, he uses it. Iko Uwais’ Jaka does the same during Triple Threat’s siege sequence. When a collection goes sideways for Adkins’ French and Louis Mandylor’s Sue in The Debt Collector, the trained martial artist French tries to end his fights as quickly as possible and the rougher brawler Sue happily fights dirty. Just before Triple Threat’s final battle begins, Tony Jaa sneaks into the mansion where the villains have holed up with a gaggle of hired goons and kills as many as he can before being detected. During the final battle itself, when Michael Bisping seems to be on the verge of overwhelming Chen with his greater physical strength and endurance, Chen clobbers him in the head with a cinderblock and downs him instantly. Even in Accident Man, where Adkins’ titular assassin Mike Fallon is a more traditionally unstoppable action hero, he uses the fight environments as weapons, and he exploits his foes’ vulnerabilities rather than just relying on brute force. Their pragmatism does not mean that Johnson’s heroes do not look supremely cool in action, but their focus on getting the fight finished rather than proving a point is striking. And it’s telling that in Triple Threat, the one time a character explicitly discards an advantage in a fight to make a point, it backfires horribly.

The pragmatism Johnson’s protagonists display in their fights ties into what makes the stories he tells with them intriguing. In one way or another, every protagonist in the four Johnson films I have seen is trying to get through the day. Sometimes, that’s an explicit part of the story – The Debt Collector’s French and Sue are on the clock for most of the movie. French needs money to save his dojo and Sue’s used to the grind. Their job is a series of misadventures to be clawed through, until circumstances force them into a moral awakening. Sometimes it’s more subtextual. In Savage Dog, Tillman has no idea what to do with himself without a routine (competing in pit fights and spending time with his friends) or a mission (avenging said friends). He opens the movie lost and closes it taking an offer that provides him some structure. Accident Man’s Mike Fallon is forced to confront the life of empty comforts he built himself into after the murder of his ex-girlfriend Beth, a dedicated activist who engaged with the world in ways Fallon never bothered to try, ways he finds himself taking up in his own violent world. And sometimes it’s simply a matter of time passing. There’s enough physical distance between Triple Threat’s heroes and villains at points that the heroes are afforded a little downtime. Jaa’s Payu indulges his love of cooking and shares a meal with his allies, Chen’s Long Fei and Celina Jade’s Xian, and the three enjoy good food and good company, something the two mercenaries don’t get to do often.

With fists or otherwise, Johnson’s protagonists aim for their next tomorrow. It’s a compelling drive, particularly when combined with their pragmatism as fighters. Alongside Johnson’s skilled action crafting, they’re the ingredients of excellent moviemaking. I really dig Jesse V. Johnson’s movies, and I’m always excited to see what he’ll do next.