Familiarity is more of a feature than a bug for Netflix, so it’s not surprising that Day Shift, which topped the streaming service’s charts after its August 12 release, is a lot like other movies you might have already seen. It’s about a Black vampire hunter named Bud Jablonski (Jamie Foxx) who’s human, but his gruffness and gifts for hand-to-hand conflict mean he comes across as Blade’s down-on-his-luck SoCal cousin. Bud has a complicated history with the vampire-hunters union, the headquarters of which is a strip-mall answer to the hotel in the John Wicks, with its rules, bureaucracy, and fondness for retro technology. The antagonist he faces down, Audrey (Karla Souza), is overseeing a luxury development in the San Fernando Valley, bent on vampire rule via gentrification — a plan shared by the undead villains in Netflix’s own 2020 Vampires vs. the Bronx. But there is an element that distinguishes Day Shift from any offering of the week, which is that it features a few genuinely pleasurable fight sequences. Some feature contortionists in ghoulish makeup who bend their limbs in eye-watering ways. The best involve Scott Adkins, a Birmingham-born martial artist and actor whose presence in Day Shift serves as an action shibboleth, a nod to the fact that first-time director J.J. Perry is a working stunt coordinator himself.
Adkins is not famous, not in the way that his scene partner Steve Howey might be considered to be after long stints on Reba and Shameless. His most visible role to date is one most people didn’t even know he played, taking over for Ryan Reynolds in the final act of X-Men Origins: Wolverine to play a not-quite-Deadpool with prosthetics over his face to make it look like his mouth was sewn shut. But he and Howey, cast as renowned vampire-hunting Armenian brothers who disguise themselves as stereo repairmen, roll up in Day Shift in the kind of entrance that suggests the audience is familiar with the actors being introduced. And a certain kind of geek absolutely will be. While Adkins has been inching toward the mainstream — he’ll play a role in the upcoming John Wick: Chapter 4 — the fandom he’s built up so far has come from his work in Asia and a slew of effective, bruising features that have mostly bypassed theaters. He’s a deity of the direct-to-video realm, proving again and again that you don’t need big budgets or a few hundred overworked VFX artists at your beck and call when you’re capable of providing the spectacle yourself.
Adkins isn’t a bad actor, though it’s his astonishing physical prowess that sets him apart. In 2006’s Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing, he does a somersaulting kick into a flying roundhouse, flat-out video-game shit that director Isaac Florentine captures in full and in slow motion so you can appreciate that it’s being done in real life. Adkins is best at rough-and-tumble antiheroes and charismatic villains — he’s incapable of playing a character who has not at some point in his life snapped someone’s arm in two. He was the antagonist in Undisputed 2, his breakthrough, a sequel to the 2002 Wesley Snipes boxing movie that featured none of the original cast and that was improbably great anyway. Michael Jai White was the star, but Adkins stole the show, and subsequent sequels followed his character, a sadistic MMA specialist named Yuri Boyka whose dominance in the prison’s underground fight scene has secured him a measure of status behind bars, on a bloody quest for redemption and meaning.
Adkins has made eight movies with Florentine and seven with another direct-to-video martial-arts specialist — Jesse V. Johnson, a fellow Brit whose collaborations with Adkins have a low-rent bluntness that’s impossible to dislike. Johnson cast Adkins as a down-on-his-luck dojo owner who takes on a job enforcing loans for a mob boss in 2018’s The Debt Collector, an excuse for a half-dozen comedic skirmishes with bodyguards and one good enough to fuel a sequel two years later. But it’s the 2019 Avengement (a real word, even if it doesn’t sound like one) that’s Johnson’s magnum opus, with Adkins playing a character out for revenge against the gangster brother who betrayed him, weathering countless prison beatings in flashbacks that seem to just burnish his brutal patina. Johnson, like J.J. Perry, has a background in stunt work, a career path that isn’t new but that’s led to some of the more satisfying action set pieces in recent years — and not just in the direct-to-video market.
Perry did stunts on the first two John Wick films, which came from stuntmen turned bigshot Hollywood filmmakers David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. Netflix’s previous gritty action hit Extraction was the directorial debut of stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave, who in addition to Marvel movies worked on Leitch’s Atomic Blonde and the aforementioned, misbegotten X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Stunt work is obviously a small world, but there’s a reliable tangibility to the fight scenes in these movies that’s often missing in bigger blockbusters, where everything has become possible and very little of it looks real. In Day Shift, Adkins and Howey join Jamie Foxx and Dave Franco to invade a suburban house that turns out to be home to a vampire hive. While Foxx shoots up bloodsuckers exploding out of the drywall, Adkins stakes vamps in the kitchen, beheads them with a sword, and fences with a bendy lady who wields knives with her feet. Then, in a move that is pure, joyous excess, he reveals blades hidden in his boots and does a twirling kick through the air for no other reason than that it looks cool. It turns out, there’s still value to that — to not just being an actor who trains enough to be able to navigate fight scenes with the help of doubles and camera angles, but to be a performer who’s able to do something that seems impossible, and who can also act.