The action all-star pushes his limits in James Nunn’s tense, daring single-shot tactical shooter.
Present day. Present time. A helicopter arrives on an island, home to a soon-to-be-shuttered US prison. Intelligence analyst Zoe Anderson (Ashley Greene Khoury, Accident Man) is in the field for the first time. She has come to the island to retrieve a prisoner, Amin Mansour (Waleed Elgadi, Mosul) who she believes knows the location of a dirty bomb set to go off in Washington. Anderson is accompanied by a small team of Navy SEALS, led by the cooly professional Lieutenant Jake Harris (Scott Adkins). Standing in Anderson and Harris’ way is the arrogant prison chief Jack Yorke (Ryan Phillippe, The Way of the Gun), who’d rather brutalize the men in his custody to slake his desire for vengeance than do his damn job.
It’s about then that a joint army of Islamist radicals and bloodthirsty mercenaries attack and everything goes right to hell. Led by the cunning, sadistic, and supposed-to-have-been-dead French-Algerian freelancer Hakim Charef (UFC fighter Jess Liaudin), this vicious crew of mega-creeps wants Mansour dead. Boxed in, Anderson, Harris, his team (Emmanuel Imani, Dino Kelly, and Jack Parr) and prison staffer Tom Shields (Terence Maynard, The Witcher) must fight to re-establish contact with the outside world and keep Mansour alive. And Mansour, a grieving man with both reason to despise the U.S. and far more of a conscience than Charef, must do whatever he can to survive.
A lot can happen in 96 minutes. And oh, it will.
One Shot is, to put it simply, a stupendous action movie. Director James Nunn (who previously worked with Adkins on Green Street Hooligans: Underground and Eliminators) presents his tactical action siege story through a single-take set in real-time. To accomplish that at all is an impressive feat of craft. To accomplish that while keeping in the up and down roller coaster grooves of motion and stillness that great action movies run on is the mark of a creative who knows their art. To accomplish that while telling a story that challenges the cliches and constraints of its genre in striking fashion demands applause.
Through weeks of rehearsal, Nunn, cinematographer Jonathan Iles, camera operator Tom Walden and fight choreographer Tim Man (a frequent collaborator of Adkins on-screen and off, including a memorable face-off in Ninja: Shadow of a Tear) and Adkins built a series of long takes that could slot together into one. One Shot‘s takes were designed to maximize physical and chronological space for both hard-hitting fights and tense drama. In their finished form, there’s an anxious grace to them. One Shot glides from fight to fight, moment to moment, and point-of-view to point-of-view.
Adkins’ Harris slips through the besieged prison, knife in hand, laying waste to mercenaries as quietly as he can in the hopes of reaching a critical piece of communications equipment. Later, he’ll wage a desperate one-man battle against most of Charef’s army to keep things from completely collapsing. Elgadi’s Mansour lays out exactly why he made the choices he made, and bitterly remarks on the U.S.’ casually murderous foreign policy to Green Khoury’s Anderson and Maynard’s Shields. Liaudin’s Charef grows increasingly enraged as what he thought would be an easy win grows more and more and more expensive, and schemes to stop a follower’s doubts about his methods from undermining his plans.
One Shot is Elgadi and Adkins’ movie—even amidst a rock-solid ensemble, they stand out.
One Shot‘s ensemble does strong work. Phillipe’s Yorke is sharp and loathsome, brandishing his authority like a cudgel in the name of getting payback he knows won’t satisfy him. Greene Khoury’s Anderson is doing her best to keep her cool in a situation she was never supposed to encounter and grows steelier and more certain as the situation degrades. Liaudin’s Charef is a cunning, rusty, razor of a man—he has a job to do, he has money to make, he’ll do whatever he needs to do to get done with things, and his plans being waylaid brings out his vicious side as a planner and as a fighter.
Nunn and screenwriter Jamie Russell use the shape of the tactical shooter to build a stage for their ensemble, and the results speak for themselves—especially the work of Waleed Elgadi and Scott Adkins. One Shot is Elgadi and Adkins’ movie—even amidst a rock-solid ensemble, they stand out.
Elgadi’s Mansour has run a gauntlet of horrors, most of them directly the United States’ responsibility. He’s got cause to despise the nation, but unlike Charef—who sees retaliation against U.S. imperialism as a business opportunity first and foremost, he’s got a conscience and he knows that he’s in too deep. He’s a man looking for which way is up in nailbiter after nailbiter, with no one to trust but himself. A late film sequence where he acts as the protagonist becomes a matter of improvisation, as Mansour does whatever he can to get clear of the gaggle of goons who want him dead with nothing but his creativity and luck to work with. It’s terrific.
And Adkins? Adkins is one of western action cinema’s living legends, an all-time great star who is reliably thrilling to watch in motion. He’s also a damn good actor. On paper, Harris is a fairly simple character compared to Adkins’ best roles (French in the Debt Collector movies, Avengement‘s Cain, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning‘s John and, of course, Yuri Boyka, the Most Complete Fighter in the World). He’s a Navy SEAL on a mission, and he aims to see that mission through.
But One Shot‘s real-time story means that Harris doesn’t get a chance to rest and re-center himself. He has to deal with exhaustion and grief and unexpected complications on the move. His only option is to move forward, to keep fighting, to try and keep everything from being for nothing. Adkins does really neat work drawing out Harris’ mental and physical exhaustion (which mirrored his own—Adkins has compared shooting One Shot to testing for his black belt) and weaving them in with a quietly frantic determination.
And oh man, the action. Adkins does some career-best work over the course of One Shot, with standout moments including the earlier mentioned series of stealthy knife strikes (they are as graceful as they are vicious) and the climax itself, where Harris uses all that he’s got left to take on Charef and the last of his crew.
Adkins and Liaudin’s face-off echoes his fight with Tim Man in Ninja: Shadow of a Tear — two fighters grappling for control of the knife that will win the day. But where the combatants in Shadow of a Tear were coolly professional to each other, Harris and Charef’s emotions run raw, which bleeds into their battle. It makes for a wonderfully brutal, intimate end to One Shot‘s climax.
But it’s the closing moments that take it from being a terrific action film to a full-on fascinating one. While it’s best left seen, rather than described, I will say that this is the second tactical action film I’ve seen this year (the first being the anti-Tom Clancy Tom Clancy adaptation Without Remorse, which I rather like) that pushes against the jingoism and unthinking valorization of the U.S. military and intelligence communities and their methodologies that can come with the form. And while there may be a limit to what such a push can achieve textually, it’s genuinely daring for a military action film to resolve the way One Shot opts to, and it provides Adkins and Elgadi a platform to do some of their best work in the film.
The more I think about One Shot, the more I realize that it’s one of my favorite movies of the year. It offers the great Scott Adkins a tremendous showcase for his martial arts mastery and his acting chops. Nunn and his collaborators use the one-take real-time structure they’ve built to consistently build tension and emphasize the physicality of tactical combat. And man, that ending. It’s full-on terrific. This is one of Scott Adkins’ finest hours. It’s essential viewing.
One Shot premieres in theaters and on demand on November 5, 2021.