Yakuza style tattoos cover a rippling, muscular physique against a black background, in between credits flash. Who cares if it’s a rip-off of Enter the Ninja? The intro has me sold. Cut to present day Little Tokyo, LA and the visual feast continues, plenty of lanterns and neon, and you just know it won’t be long until everything gets turned up to 11. In hindsight it probably doesn’t take much to sell me, but that’s not the point. Before long Showdown in Little Tokyo has Swedish stud Dolph Lundgren literally swinging into action, then lifting cars and throwing stars. It also has Brandon Lee showing his martial arts chops, yes the son of Bruce. There’s not much call for dramatic acting, just bring more arses for them to kick. To my delight, wisecracks and one-liners flow as if the 80s never ended, so do bullets, fists, and feet, all ending in a suitably explosive climax. No surprises then that this short and sweet fit of adrenaline was brought to you by Mark L Lester, a man who knows cheap thrills and big action. I’m talking classics like Class of 1984 and Commando, to exploitation flicks like Truck Stop Women. While these precious elements could never combine to garner any critical acclaim, they do produce a dark and exciting action flick.
As I got well and truly comfortable watching the movie, it struck me that it’s basically a bigger budget version of Samurai Cop. I mean, it looks a hell of a lot nicer, sets are bigger and fancier, special effects light years ahead, and the writing and acting is mildly better. But the similarities of a Japanese trained, LAPD member and his partner singlehandedly (or is that doublehandedly?) destroying a Yakuza group, by killing dudes and spouting dumb lines, is uncanny. Though Showdown in Little Tokyo is missing such gems as “I’m telling you son of a bitches,” it matches them with the likes of “you have the biggest dick I’ve ever seen on a man.” As you might imagine, the writing isn’t a great deal to, uh, write home about, despite (or should that be because of) the union of two Dragnet television writers, Stephen Glantz and Caliope Brattlestreet. I’m not sure that’s even a real name.
Apparently director Lester came up with the idea and went through several action writers and re-writes to get to this point. That is before Warner Bros cut more than a 10th of the film and probably half of the drama and character development. It does, however, explain the police backdrop and why it’s more or less ignored for the entire movie. The little background shown really only serves as a reason to get Dolph’s Japanese-raised Sergeant Chris Kenner alongside Lee’s part-Japanese Johnny Murata, and pit them against some Yakuza. That said, the creative trust do borrow heavily from the narrative and style of buddy cop flicks like Tango and Cash and Lethal Weapon.
To delve in a little, Kenner is the resident badarse overseeing the Little Tokyo beat, joined by new partner Murata. The scene where the two meet is just beautiful – machismo oozes as a rivalry of masculinity and martial artistry is established, in a fistfight of course. As I mentioned, we’re previously introduced to Kenner as he swings in to face-kick a guy. One hell of a dramatic entrance for a totally unconvincing attempt to shut down an underground fighting ring. It turns out a rival mob is there and they just want to shoot up the place. After a brief bit of chaos Kenner retires to his favourite Japanese restaurant, run by a nice motherly type who doesn’t seem too worried when the same gang come and shoot up her place too. Turns out there’s a new Yakuza group in town who really like shooting up places, working out of a new brewery and quickly taking over all of Little Tokyo, as big as that sounds. They’ve taken over the Bonsai Club too, the local den of debauchery where we’re introduced to Tia Carere’s Minako. She’s only there to sing, but that’s not good enough for this new gang’s boss, Mr Yoshida. That’s Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who’s been in a tonne of cool stuff from License to Kill to Mortal Kombat, but got his start working with the great Fred Olen Ray.
Conveniently, Kenner has a need to exact vengeance upon Yoshida, so the opportunity is presented to mix business with pleasure. With the trusty Murata by his side, the pair go up against an entire faction of Yakuza. Guess who’s favoured in that battle as the overqualified cops go to work, aiming to destroy the syndicate, halt the spread of ice, and save Minako. Yeah, ice is the new dangerous product from Yoshida’s Red Dragon brewery, who obviously aren’t doing much brewing. We’re told all about it by none other than Momma from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – Vernee Watson. Police work basically goes out the window, Dirty Harry style, as Kenner and poor, forever second-best Murata leave a trail of destruction throughout LA. The action basically never stops, and seemingly every set is destroyed, from a traditional bathhouse filled with tattooed guys in sumo thongs, to Kenner’s wannabe Japanese lake cabin. Sadly this was one of Lee’s last roles before that tragic accident shooting The Crow. That makes it even more of a shame that Warner Bros did as they seem to love doing and kill creative freedom with their meddling, there’s really no telling how the drama would have turned out without the cuts.
What with the heavy studio edit and the high-octane action nature of the project, there’s really not much acting here. Dolph’s limited range, hampered further by his playing an American raised in Japan with a lingering Swedish accent, is seriously fun to watch. Not as fun as watching him flex his muscles on bad guys though. His character apparently doesn’t even move much during sex, no matter how “wow” it is. Lee comes across even sillier, his delivery making the script seem cheesier than it already is. “We’re gonna nail this guy, and when we get done we’re gonna go eat fish off those naked chicks.”
Carere does well though, moving steadily up from her beginnings in the likes of Zombie Nightmare towards her roles in Wayne’s World and True Lies – alongside a different European action hero. Tagawa’s Yoshida is a total caricature but he makes it work, and that’s the source of a lot of the grittiness and Yakuza realism in the movie. It goes without saying that a lot of the cast aren’t particularly Japanese, but that means we get to enjoy appearances from cult actors like Al Leong and Gerald Okamura – from Big Trouble in Little China to Andy Sidaris movies and many more. All that said, while dramatic ability helps the plot make more sense, action is the real attraction, and Dolph and Lee are experts at that. There are set-ups aplenty to show off their martial arts skills, and many excuses for Dolph to get shirtless, which even as a straight guy I’m all for.
Lester seems to have assembled a fairly star-studded crew on Showdown in Little Tokyo, not so surprising considering his cult status as a filmmaker – the man brought us that sexually charged conflict between Arnie and Aussie Vernon Wells in Commando after all, what a climax. One of my favourite things about Showdown in Little Tokyo, besides the action of course, are the stylish, East meets West visuals, juxtaposing LA and its party scene with the colourful noir of Little Tokyo. This is perhaps not so surprising as Mark Irwin – Videodrome, The Fly – is onboard as cinematographer, also doing a bang-up job getting some slick action on film. Cutting it together is a competent and copious list of people, including Tango and Cash editor Robert A Ferretti alongside Timecop and Face/Off editor Steven Kemper. I don’t need to explain that those guys definitely know this brand of action inside and out, yet apparently the studio didn’t think so and brought in Michael Eliot – who’d worked with Ferretti on Fear – to take a razor to it. Providing the soundtrack is David Michael Frank, who had done a bunch of Steven Seagal movies prior to this and went on to do Forest Gump. It is a relatively unmemorable score, though he generally avoids the kitschiness of faux-oriental stylings at least.
Showdown in Little Tokyo really proves the age-old action movie attitude that you don’t need a deep and convincing story if you have enough intense action. I mean I’d still love to see a director’s cut, but for now this is all we have, and fortunately that is plenty of excitement. The fistfights are just as compelling as the explosive destruction, and come on, Dolph is in it. Yes, we even get that fantastic Dolph yell. I guess the story isn’t all that bad, it’s just very typical of this style of action flick, and really doesn’t do the actors any favours. Its saving grace is that there’s actually a lot of darkness sprinkled throughout, mostly in the Yakuza related elements. I’m talking everything from video-taped killings to traditional self-punishment and suicide. That’s more than enough reason for me to be invested in Dolph and his character, as long as there’s plenty of arse-kicking to distract me, which there so generously is. I guess I can’t froth as much about Lee, but it’d be hard not to be totally overshadowed by that muscular Swedish machine. Occasionally Netflix does great things, and that includes bringing this martial arts filled, buddy cop flick to my attention. The barrier for entry is so low, just go and watch it already!