Hollywood’s repeated failure to use international action stars to their full potential

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Although there are inevitably exceptions to the rule, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that Hollywood has never been able to either grasp or replicate what made international action stars so successful when they first gained attention for their on-screen feats of borderline superheroism.

Before anyone wants to play the Arnold Schwarzenegger card and suggest that one of the genre’s most iconic figures ever is quite clearly a beefy Austrian, it’ll be swiftly counteracted by the fact he didn’t make a single non-American movie until 2019, when he jetted off to China to share the screen with Jackie Chan in the bizarre Iron Mask.

Jason Statham doesn’t count, either, because he was Guy Ritchie’s favourite geezer who’d never made an action flick in his life until he went Stateside, and the impact of Jean-Claude Van Damme is negligible considering that he quickly slid downwards into the pit of straight-to-video mediocrity following his initial high-kicking breakthrough in the 1980s.

Jackie Chan had a solid run after his influential melding of slapstick and martial arts created plenty of crossover appeal, but he’s into his 70s now and it’s been a long time since he played a major role in an American actioner that scored a wide theatrical release, and much the same can be said of Jet Li.

Another problem is that those guys have been around for decades, but it’s not exactly a new one. After all, Chow Yun-fat is one of action cinema’s legendary heroes after headlining a glut of classics, including A Better Tomorrow, City on Fire, The Killer, Hard Boiled, and Full Contact, but his Hollywood sojourn was a disaster.

None of his high-octane efforts on the other side of the world were remotely memorable, with nobody coming close to getting the best out of an actor who’d already made it abundantly clear they were among the very best to ever indulge in on-screen running and gunning. Even more recently, the most impressive action stars have been done dirty by Hollywood’s mishandling of their obvious abilities.

Don’t hold it against him, but Donnie Yen is Steven Seagal’s favourite modern-day ass-kicker, even if John Wick: Chapter 4 was the first time he’d been allowed to cut loose in a fashion Hong Kong audiences have been witnessing for decades, and even at that it only came at his own suggestion. He wasn’t the lead, though, so he’s still on the hunt for an American flick that puts him front and centre but doesn’t conspire to disappoint.

Tony Jaa literally exploded onto the scene by setting himself on fire and kicking somebody in the head in 2003’s Ong-Bak, but beyond being a faceless goon in the seventh Fast & Furious film, lurking in the background of Vin Diesel’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage, co-starring with Milla Jovovich in the woeful Monster Hunter, and lending support in the even more risible fourth Expendables, he hasn’t been given a sniff.

On the subject of Sylvester Stallone’s wretched fourth instalment, Iko Uwais was wasted as the villain. The Raid heralded the arrival of a potent and incredibly skilled martial artist who could actually act and emote, something that was hardly apparent in Mark Wahlberg’s mediocre Mile 22, dismal buddy comedy Stuber, or the mind-numbing G.I. Joe spinoff Snake Eyes.

That’s not to say Hollywood should be bending over backwards to accommodate them, but there’s a happy medium to be found. All of the aforementioned names became international stars in the action arena for their very specific skillset, but for whatever reason, as soon as they make the jump to the industry’s biggest studio system they find their edges sanded down to an indistinguishable nub.

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