There’s an unspoken rule in cinema that team-up films are typically bad. While Marvel seems to have bucked that trend, other studios still struggle with giving all of their leading stars proper screen time. You’ll have a bunch of A-list actors in the same room, but they’re putting up B or C-list performances because the script doesn’t utilize them well.
Even knowing this, the mere idea of some of your favorite actors playing off of each other tricks your brain into thinking anything can be good. That’s the sort of trap I fell into with Triple Threat, a film that stars three of this generation’s greatest martial arts action stars. That a film can contain Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, and Tiger Chen, and still be thoroughly mediocre is the biggest disappointment here, but I suppose I should have seen it coming.
Director: Jesse V. Johnson
Release Date: February 28, 2019 (China), March 22, 2019 (USA)
Triple Threat starts out with a ragtag group of mercenaries invading a Chinese village for some unspoken reason. Consisting of the likes of Devereaux (Michael Jai White), Collins (Scott Adkins), Payu (Tony Jaa), Long Fei (Tiger Chen), and Mook (Jeeja Yanin), the group proceeds to shoot up every soldier in sight and plant some bombs at the compound. During this raid, Jaka (Iko Uwais) watches as his wife is riddled with bullets before him. Burning with a desire for vengeance, he sets out to find the perpetrators.
This leads into a ridiculously short battle between Payu and Jaka that might as well have not been included in the film. The two trade possibly three hits before an explosion separates them and Payu continues on with his mission. Immediately following that, it turns out the rest of the mercenaries have some other agenda and proceed to disarm and knock-out Payu and Long Fei, leaving them for dead.
If that sounds like a stupidly complex way to begin a movie to you, then you’re not wrong. Within the first five minutes of the film, we have not only a redemption arc, but a double-cross established without even really knowing anything about these characters. While watching, I had to mentally rewind the film and make sure I didn’t miss anything, because this intro certainly doesn’t match the description that the film has online.
A few days later, we catch up with Payu and Long Fei in some underground Thai boxing ring. Having survived the attempt on their lives, the two are working to find any kind of leads on what happened during the raid. Jaka, hot on their trail after identifying them from the scene, proceeds to battle with Long Fei and gets his ass handed to him. During the battle, he mentions losing his wife and this sparks Long Fei to bring him back to his house to explain the situation in China.
After waking up from his beat down, Jaka explains everything that happened in that village while Long Fei and Payu tell their side of the story. Having been deceived by basically everyone around them, the three decide to team up and take down the mercenaries responsible for flipping their lives upside down. Refusing to remain simple, though, Triple Threat then throws in the fact that Jaka is basically a triple agent as he deceives Long Fei and Payu to flush out the mercenaries from China.
Really, I’m utterly confused why a film about three stars partnering up to kick some ass required such a convoluted setup. Was it simply too convenient to have the three meet and become friends? The fact that Jaka is working for himself also undermines the title of the movie, which is supposedly named Triple Threat for the fact that it stars three martial arts action actors. Instead, I think the producers of the film were trying to create an Asian version of The Expendables without putting much more thought into the proceedings.
My theory is somewhat confirmed because yet another wrinkle in the plot is introduced in the character of Xian (Celina Jade). It turns out the mercenary group was looking for Xian in China and picked the wrong encampment, or at least I assume that’s what happened. For some reason, they are tracking down the billionaire philanthropist to extort money from her father and are under the orders of some other rich women and I really don’t know how else to explain what happens. I get wanting to establish some kind of motivation for your lead characters but throwing so many curveballs and plotlines in the span of 15 minutes makes for a film that is far too jammed with information.
What I mean by that is, a lot of words are spoken, but none of them truly matter. When it comes down to brass tax, Triple Threat is a film about showcasing some crazy action sequences. Cramming in all kinds of plot not only distracts from those moments, but it starts to make you question why one person is here or stabbing someone else in the back. You could have easily chopped off the intro sequence and gotten straight to Payu and Long Fei looking to defect from their group while explaining that Jaka also has baggage with the team.
Sadly, most of the action doesn’t play to the strengths of its incredibly talented cast. I’ll never understand why a group of martial arts actors wanted to create a film where they shoot guns, but that is precisely what Triple Threat gives us. Instead of making another playground for Tony Jaa’s incredible athleticism or giving Iko Uwais another chance to show off the impressive Pencak Silat martial art, we have gunfight after gunfight interspersed with a few minutes of fisticuffs.
This isn’t even filmed like a John Woo film, where at least the gymnastic prowess of its stars would be put to excellent use. This is more like a Hollywood production without the budget and with some more violence. The firearms are fired blindly around scenes like drunken Stormtroopers and when bullets do connect, we often get a few frames of a close-up before the camera cuts to someone running away or ducking behind cover. It’s very schizophrenic and doesn’t make for the most exciting battles.
The moments when the guns are thrown down and the stars finally start flexing their kung fu skills is when Triple Threat gets good. Tiger Chen, in particular, gets quite a few battles that allow him to jump, kick, and punch his way to victory. Tony Jaa ends the movie with another great example of the style that made him famous and I’m even impressed with how well Scott Adkins does against these juggernauts of action cinema. He gets one battle against Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais at the same time and my jaw dropped when he toppled them both.
It’s just that getting to those moments means you have to suffer through a bog-standard action film that does nothing to mix things up. There is a chase sequence in Thailand that could be straight out of any Jackie Chan film, there are forced comedy bits where Tony Jaa attempts to be funny and lots of exposition from the bad guys that does nothing to characterize them. It’s just business as usual with the occasional bit of brilliance.
I wish I could say the acting was solid, but even that area is lacking. For some reason, the three main leads speak English for a majority of the film while conversing amongst themselves. The sequence where they all meet for the first time is filmed in Mandarin, but when talking in Long Fei’s apartment, they all decide to use a foreign tongue to discuss their big plan. I shouldn’t be poking fun at someone’s accent, but it sounds like the rehearsal version for the scene instead of a final take.
The native English speakers fare a little better, but even they come off as a bit one-note. Michael Jai White is constantly disgruntled and Scott Adkins doesn’t seem to know the meaning of subtlety. Celina Jade is, surprisingly, the best in the film and is able to switch between Mandarin and English without missing a beat. Her character doesn’t contribute much to the story, but at least she can act.
A lot of these flaws would be easier to ignore if the film kept a consistent pace. For the first 40 minutes, Triple Threat feels like a high-speed rollercoaster. The plot doesn’t make a lick of sense, but the movie is constantly moving from point to point without stopping to fill in the blanks. It prevents your brain from thinking too deeply about anything, which is precisely how an action movie should work. It’s when you get to the relative mid-point that the film falls apart.
The second half moves like it’s stuck in molasses and that ultimately brings down the film. Now it becomes impossible to ignore how shoddy the camera work is or how the writing is convoluted for no real reason. It doubly hurts that the action scenes also take a break, which is a sin that’s less forgivable than casting martial artists in a film about guns.
I wish I could love Triple Threat, but it just doesn’t live up to the potential of its cast. Every actor in this film has starred in at least one movie that became an instant classic, yet mashing them together creates a disjointed and confusing mess. The only takeaway I got from the ordeal was that these people can do better. There is no reason why everyone couldn’t get together a second time and produce a film that takes better advantage of their particular talents.
It’s certainly a spectacle and possibly worth a watch for die-hard fans, but Triple Threat is anything but threatening.