With so many films relying on CGI for action sequences, there’s something really delicious about a fight scene where you can tell the actors are as close to making full contact as they can be without physical injury. Fight scenes like these add an element of excitement due to their ferocity that just can’t be recreated with a computer. Using a cast of world-renowned martial artists as the stars of your feature significantly ups the adrenaline quotient, artists like Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior), Tiger Chen (The Matrix), Iko Uwais (The Raid: Redemption), Michael Jai White (Black Dynamite), JeeJa Yanin (Chocolate), and Scott Adkins (The Expendables 2), who’ve each made their own unique mark on the martial arts cinema scene. Stuntman-turned-director Jesse V. Johnson (Accident Man) takes the aforementioned cadre of talent and places them all at the heart of the action-adventure film Triple Threat, a seemingly slight love letter to ‘80s action romps where the narrative fills the gaps between fantastic fights.
With the passing of her father, Xian Xhen (Celina Jade) arrives in the city of Maha Jaya to liquidate his finances in order to achieve his wishes of revitalizing the city by way of forcing the crime syndicates out. Liking things the way they are, a hit squad lead by Collins (Adkins) is hired to kidnap Xian and get things back to normal. While Collins can account for Xian’s social calendar and how local police will respond to his assault, what he and his team can’t account for is the incidental involvement of three seemingly unconnected men with agendas of their own. Considering the stakes, even the combined might of Payu (Jaa), Long-Fei (Chen), and Jaka (Uwais) may not be enough to stop Collins and save Maha Jaya.
Movies like Triple Threat are all about knowing their audience. Here, Johnson recognizes the need to set the board quickly and get down to the fighting. In this regard, Triple Threat is surprisingly clear-cut while the narrative design enables a few fun surprises along the way. Astonishingly, even with five writers (screenwriter Joey O’Bryan and co-writers Fangjin Song, Jian Huang, Sheldon Pang, and Lei Yan), the narrative flows without making anything unnecessarily complicated or reductive in order to get to the endgame during which the big players throw down. As with any super-team-up film, there’s the usual conflict before characters can work together, requiring a slowing down of narrative momentum in order to create alliances. Even this is handled with plausible efficiency. Frankly, the whole of Triple Threat shouldn’t work in its effort to manage so many character arcs at once due to the sheer star power of the cast, the requirement to give each character their due, and not to mention the obvious audience pressure to showcase some of the best martial art film stars taking each other on. For example, in the opening action sequence, Jaka starts off as an adversary to Payu and Long-Fei after the two men assist White’s Devereaux from breaking Collins out of captivity in order to complete the team required to fulfill the syndicate’s kill order. This sequence manages to introduce all the central players, establish their skill-level, and function as a catalyst for the rest of the film. Strangely, as an opening action set piece, it’s not incredibly engaging, suggesting a low bar for what follows. While Devereaux and his squad utilize munitions to clear enemy combatants, Payu and Long-Fei only use their hands. As the two fighters move between buildings, Payu encounters Jaka and the first fight begins. Since this is an introductory sequence, it doesn’t matter who wins, only that these martial artists throw down. Although it’s an all-too-brief sequence, each actor gets a chance to showcase his fighting style and demonstrate that each of these characters are as equally skilled and dangerous as the other. Shortly after the opening sequence, Jaka tracks down Payu and Long-Fei, leading to a confrontation which is as emotionally charged as it is violent. This is the moment audiences want, a chance to see Chen and Uwais going head-to-head, and Johnson gives us a taste. But only a taste is appropriate this early in the film as shortly thereafter, these enemies need to become uneasy allies. The fight sequences all manage to continue to go up from here.
Though the action sequences do grow in a manner befitting the talent and the narrative’s crafted to naturally flow from one character to another, Triple Threat is not without faults. The initial edits from one scene to another early in the film are so hard, they may induce concussions while somehow managing to stop the forward momentum the previous scene establishes. Another issue is the use of the crime syndicate bosses throughout the film. The way several scenes featuring the bosses late in the film are presented is difficult to track in relation to the scenes preceding and following, mostly because the bosses are the least developed characters in the film. When audiences are 45 minutes into a 96-minute movie, they should know who the principle players are and those characters’ needs. All the audience truly needs to know is that these characters are the bad guys, and this is mostly fine to follow the story, yet the way the two separate syndicates engage with the story suggests a dynamic the audience is left out of. The strangest sequence is one which is either purposeful (and therefore confusing) or accidental (and therefore off-putting). It’s a single scene in which a character speaks without subtitles. It doesn’t seem to be used in an artistic way, as if to give the audience a sense of “otherness,” nor does it seem to add in an element of mystery. There just seems to be a scene which went without any subtitles randomly placed at the height of a getaway sequence. This stood out in a film featuring a multi-lingual cast, many of whom speak the native languages of their respective characters, and one which provided subtitles when needed in every other scene. In a movie filled with humor and charm, it’s pretty easy to overlook these blemishes when the rest is just plain fun.
If you’re looking for an action film with pathos, make sure to check out this year’s Furie, or 2014’s The Raid: Berandal, or even 2008’s Ip Man featuring Donnie Yen, which is a striking action biopic. But if you’re looking for some modern bone-cracking mayhem, Triple Threat’s got the goods. As though pumping blood from all the ‘80s action films audiences loved through an Indo-Chinese POV, Triple Threat’s got charm, humor, action, and more heart than you’d expect. The one disappointment in the whole film is how little screentime Uwais shares with Jaa and Chen, especially as the film is sold on the shoulders of all three incredible martial artists. The noticeable lack of engagement between the three is frustrating. However, the undeniable chemistry between Jaa and Chen, who share most scenes together due to their characters’ brotherly relationship, almost makes up for it. In fact, if they made a prequel, audiences would undoubtedly go for it with Triple Threat as proof of concept. Even going in knowing that these three actors don’t share as much time together as audiences may want doesn’t reduce any of the pure excitement the audience will feel from watching these three, along with Adkins, White, and Yanin, try to take a piece out of each other before the end. No matter what fates await the characters, when they all throw down, audiences win.
In wide release for one-night only Tuesday, March 19. For information on tickets, head to the official Triple Threat website.
Update 3/24/19: Triple Threat is now available on VOD.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.