Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: We look back on highlights of the DTV action craze—some of the coolest, wildest, and most entertaining action movies to skip theaters entirely.
A stunt coordinator turned prolific director of DTV action, Jesse V. Johnson wastes no time setting Triple Threat in motion, with less than five minutes passing between studio logos and the first shot fired in a jungle-raid opening set piece. The title promises, and delivers, a showcase for three performers: Indonesian Silat fighter Iko Uwais (The Raid), Muay Thai master Tony Jaa (Ong-bak), and Chinese martial artist Tiger Chen, a choreographer who’s only recently made the leap to performing onscreen himself. The plot doesn’t bear much consideration, with those three versus evil Western forces (led by Johnson’s regular collaborator Scott Adkins) trying to kill a humanitarian-minded princess (Celina Jade). “Maha Jaya,” i.e. Thailand, is the setting, where plentiful bursts of gunfire are deployed with musical and soothing regularity. In between all the shooting, Johnson captures a number of martial arts face-offs with increasingly rare and graceful coherence.
The opening jungle raid climaxes with a very large fireball explosion, shown multiple times from different angles for maximal value. That gasoline-fueled trope, so integral to ’80s and ’90s action films, is now an anomaly that’s been displaced by the faker-looking, weightless CG explosions favored by modern superhero films. In a time-honored B-movie paradox, Triple Threat’s comparative modesty of resources increases its tangible satisfactions: Everything you see has been generated through grunt work rather than outsourced for computer rendering. A similar throwback, the Thailand location calls to mind a long tradition of American ’80s fare filmed there and in the Philippines in which winning the Vietnam War is the clear and unsavory subtext, pitting white protagonists against Asian antagonists. But Triple Threat avoids the reactionary, instead tapping into an older and deeply satisfying tradition of watching Asian characters work off colonial wrongs by beating the tar out of western villains. (Compare and contrast, for example, with the 2013 Adkins vehicle Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear, a similarly skillful DTV action workout, but also one in which he’s tortured by Burmese authorities in scenes that unpleasantly lean into Hanoi Hilton connotations.)
Forced to primarily communicate with each other in halting English, the central trio are a pleasure to watch. Jaa has often radiated an unexpected sweetness in between ass-beatings, and he’s the highlight, presence-wise, of a trio otherwise equally balanced in their skills. There is some modest downtime between the first and third acts, but any mild tediousness is offset by the unexpected pleasure of Jaa grinning as he makes a (very delicious-looking) dinner for his fellow fighters and the princess. It’s a moment of charismatic warmth before the modest super-group gets back to executing a precise mission with endearing confidence. As Jaa puts it during the final confrontation, well-staged on an atmospherically lit set that’s been built to be torn apart, one wall-destroying face-off at a time: “Less talk, just die.”