– One’s a warrior. One’s a wise guy. They’re two L.A. cops going after a gang of drug lords. Feet first.
Famed action director Mark L. Lester (Commando, Class Of 1984) never met a cinematic temptation he didn’t give in to. At least as far as Showdown In Little Tokyo is concerned. Which, of course, is a great thing; a statement meant as high praise. “Is there a conceivable way to have Dolph Lundgren shirtless for this sequence? Make it so.” “Could we remotely find a way for Brandon Lee to squeeze in a wise crack after this fight? Do it.” “Can ALL of the girls be naked? Yes? Okay then.”
And as was Mark L. Lester, so were the early 1990s.
I know I demanded nothing less than oiled chests and bullet belts from all the films of my childhood. And I wasn’t alone. Mark Lester was there for me. He was there for us.
Showdown In Little Tokyo is the kind of movie with a bold title that absolutely delivers on what it promises. Sure, it is a tried and true buddy cop film, complete with the tough and wizened cop who usually works alone and doesn’t want a partner and the wise-cracking young buck who will inevitably melt his heart. They’ll even bro-shake on it. The only real twist on the formula here (and it’s a humorous one) is that Lee (playing Japanese here, curiously) is more of a Valley Dude type who knows nothing about the culture of his ancestors… despite knowing martial arts. Which leaves Lundgren to be the seasoned cop who happened to have grown up in Japan and learned the ways of the samurai. And you better believe Lundgren’s Sgt. Chris Kenner has a past with the vicious yakuza gang lord who is making a push to take over L.A. Said yakuza leader is played by a loin cloth-wearing Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat’s Shang Tsung, as well as countless other screen villains), one of dozens of men to wear loin clothes in this film. His villainous Yoshida is not only pushing for yakuza expansion into L.A., but also finds himself on a collision course with Lundgren’s Kenner.
And again, because this is action cinema from the early 1990s as rendered by Mark L. Lester, there’s a gorgeous club dancer in the mix played by Tia Carrare. Lundgren and Lee spend part of the movie feeling each other out and acting somewhat standoffish to one another. Their meet cute is itself a shootout and fight. But with their camaraderie eventually sealed with a bro-shake, it seems their partnership will be forever harmonious. And it sort of is. But that brings up one of my only problems with Showdown In Little Tokyo, which is that Brandon Lee, still a bit of an up and comer at the time, plays a pretty clear second fiddle to Lundgren. Kenner is the one who gets the girl, and protects the girl, and all that patriarchal stuff that was mandatory in action cinema of the time. Lee just gets to stand aside and make jokes about how enormous Lundgren’s penis is, which is admittedly a great joke. Lee’s Johnny Murata doesn’t have much of a character arc or really any dimensionality. He’s there to play off of Lundgren’s straight man, and he does so with gusto. He gets to show off the grace and speed of his martial arts and his wit here, making an early case for Brandon Lee: Superstar. But it’s Lee’s charisma alone that gives his character life, as very little of it is likely found on the page.
But what is on the page is a textbook buddy cop film, a genre that I can apparently never get enough of. And I’m fairly certain America will back me up on that notion. Written by Stephen Glantz and Caliope Brattlestreet (best name ever?), this writing duo doesn’t have much else on their resume as far as films of this type go, having cut their teeth in TV and largely remaining in television after Showdown. But they display a hearty awareness of the tropes of the buddy cop genre here and distill it down quite nicely into an early ‘90s entertainment machine.
While it is unfortunate that Lee plays a clear wingman in Showdown In Little Tokyo, Dolph Lundgren is about as fine of a specimen here as ever he was. At arguably the height of his career (with this in 1991 and Universal Soldier just afterwards in 1992), it is refreshing to see this action icon front and center in an honest to God theatrical release. Sure, he’s never been the most charismatic screen presence, but he’s FAR from the least charismatic. And his sense of humor, ridiculous physique, and (in hindsight) amazing tenacity as an action hero, offers a pretty solid anchor on which to dock this vehicle.
Which ultimately brings us to the titular “showdown”. And the movie doesn’t disappoint. There’s plenty of martial arts and gun violence to satiate anyone’s latent bloodlust. There’s a giant fight in a hot bath house (hence all the aforementioned loin cloths) which involves a sumo wrestler (there goes that old “Lester restraint” again), a huge siege on Lundgren’s amazing Japanese-style second home (yep, this is one of those movies where policemen can afford to have second homes that are gorgeous), and a final climax in the midst of a foot parade complete with dragon costumes and fireworks and the most over the top villain death outside of Con Air.
That excess does rankle the 2015 sensibilities at times, most notably in its depiction of women. For instance, in the most egregious offense, to demonstrate just how ruthless Yoshida is, he gets a girl naked and then beheads her. Yeesh. And as if Tia Carrere’s character being a pure damsel in distress doesn’t feel dated enough, Lester also fairly obviously uses a body double to make her character appear naked on screen. This kind of practice feels skeevy, because one assumes that the actress chose not to appear sans clothes in the picture, and that another actress’s breasts, in close up, were likely inserted after the fact to make it look like that very actress. It’s distracting in its glaring obviousness, as well as its inappropriateness. Not that it necessarily forgives anything, but the men are treated as beefy physical specimen here as well, with their skin bared as often as possible, most notably in a torture sequence laden with sweaty pectorals.
Buddy cop films follow a strict formula, and Showdown In Little Tokyo never even remotely threatens to deviate from this heavily trodden path. The key to success in a buddy cop film involves chemistry and the flourishes added to the eventualities. Lundgren and Lee have an easy and cheesy rapport here that is never short of charming. The cultural flip flop of their characters, while never revolutionary, is certainly welcome and humorous. And Mark L. Lester’s complete and total inability to restrain himself from pumping up every explosion, baring every available body part, and murdering each villain at least twice, allows for a hugely entertaining time machine to 1991.
A review of this film for the Action/Adventure Section became priority number one when Showdown In Little Tokyo recently hit “pressed to order” Blu-ray from Warner Archive. Yes, that’s right, now you can own Showdown In Little Tokyo on glorious Blu-ray directly (and only) from Warner Archive. As per their normal modus operandi, there aren’t any bonus features here. Just a nice high definition presentation from their considerable archives. They’re still fairly selective in what titles they bring to Blu-ray versus DVD, so this action fan couldn’t be more pleased that they chose this title for the high definition treatment.
And I’m Out.
PS: While it just doesn’t fit anywhere conveniently in my write up on this film, it does bear mentioning that virtually every single “go-to” Asian character actor that ever worked in Hollywood makes an appearance in this film, from Gerald Okamura to Al Leong to Toshihiro Obata (Shredder’s right hand man in the first two Ninja Turtles films). It’s much appreciated.