Long have we awaited Triple Threat, the Jesse V. Johnson-helmed martial arts action thriller. Promotional material showing Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak), Iko Iwais (The Raid), and Tiger Chen (Keanu Reeves’s friend and teacher, and protege of the the monumentally influential Yuen Woo-Ping) had fans of Asian action films foaming at the mouth. The rest of the casting read like a who’s who of the martial arts and stunt teams worlds, touting stars including Jeeja Yanin, Michael Jai White, and a regular of Johnson’s films, Scott Adkins. Unfortunately, this ludicrously talented and entirely capable ensemble is let down by a woefully mediocre script, cinematography, plot and sound design. There’s certainly no threat of this becoming a cult hit any time soon.
The film follows a usual martial arts action narrative with deceit, failed assassinations, and revenge. Jaa and Chen are recruited by a small team of ex-military types turned ‘soldiers of fortune’ on a mission to take out a crew of terrorists holed up in a small village in Northern Thailand. Or Indonesia… or a generic Asian country, it isn’t made quite clear. Instead the real aim is to rescue a captured member of the guns-for-hire team, Collins (Adkins). Jaa and Chen figure this out and are left for dead. The village also happens to be the home of Jaka (Iwais) who survives the ambush and is left with the task of burying his wife and fellow villagers after the squad decide to raze his humble home to the ground.
Triple Threat moves at a blistering pace, sparing no time for blabbering or artistic transitional shots. To Johnson’s credit, this is exactly what Triple Threat should do. With a cast of this pedigree, on screen time should involve them kicking and elbowing as much as possible. An aspect of Triple Threat that I appreciated was the showcasing of different martial arts styles offered up by its stars, Johnson allowing all three leads time to indulge in their disciplines. This was most pleasing in Jaa’s case, enabling him to show off what made him an international sensation way back in 2005. Having said that, Triple Threat’s fight scenes fail in being as revelatory as Ong-Bak’s, as visceral as The Raid’s, or as tight as The Man of Tai Chi’s. Often the editor seems to lose focus and shift the action from a fight to a needless shot of one of the other cast members doing something mundane like lying on the floor, or quietly entering a room, rifle at the ready, this left me begging the film to cut back to Jaa flying through the air ready to have his knee connect with someone’s face.
Even though Triple Threat has its fair share of action scenes, the ones that should have been a real draw for the audience – namely Jaa vs Iwais, or Chen vs Adkins – end up being frustratingly short and uninspired. There are some instances of brilliance in terms of choreography, but none of these are shot especially well and I soon forgot about them. I can only hope Triple Threat works as an introductory showreel to inspire newcomers to further seek out films worthy of these stars’ talents.
As dismissive as this sounds, an action film boasting a cast of this calibre doesn’t need a good plot. Some would argue it doesn’t need one at all and admittedly the plot in Triple Threat only serves as an excuse for its numerous melees. However its insistence at keeping all aspects of its narrative and production as vague and generic as possible (“International Airport”, “City Police Station” etc) is an overall detrimental distraction. Especially given the fact that Triple Threat clearly takes place in Thailand, Jaa even relishes in the chance to speak his mother tongue, and at one point cook Tom Yum Goong! Its story is so thin it’s almost laughable, there are no arresting shots and no effort is made to frame impacts or moves. Jaa steals the show by going back to his Ong-Bak roots but the rest of the cast is underused. This is all bolstered by a dreadfully generic action movie soundtrack.
Triple Threat plays it safe with its choreography and comes off as a vehicle for bragging rights for Jesse V. Johnson, who was unarguably given the world when he landed each of this film’s leads. Playful acting from each of its stars carries the film, saving it from a lesser score, but Triple Threat’s one and a half hour run time left me feeling disappointed, and that’s such a shame. It seems he had fun but ultimately crafted a forgettable and lazy film.
Triple Threat is a frustrating watch. The film is bursting at the seams with martial arts talent but falls short of capitalising on this, instead it teases us with glimpses of brilliance and potential, and ultimately we’re left feeling underwhelmed and a longing for what could have been.