The Dolph Lundgren vs. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa Saga
SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO (1991) and BRIDGE OF DRAGONS (1999)
As I continue to learn about the works of Dolph Lundgren (no, sorry, I’m not writing LUNDGRENICS, I’m just trying to become a more well-rounded individual) it’s refreshing to find that he has many movies where he is a charismatic action hero and not just some grunting oaf. SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO is one people have been recommending to me for years because it has him teamed with Brandon Lee, which is a pretty big deal for somebody whose most notable co-stars are often talk show hosts like Jerry Springer or Montel Williams.
Basically this one is a cop buddy picture with Dolph as the line-crossing, bushido practicing white cop on the Little Tokyo beat who by the way is out to avenge the deaths of his parents by a samurai, but that’s neither here nor there. We know Dolph is a bad motherfucker right away because he single-handedly busts up an illegal underground fighting circuit by rappelling in from the ceiling in the middle of a match and then taking on those who disagree with his decision. Later he’s in a cafe when he happens to see some of the same Yakuzas bullying the old lady owner for protection money. In the middle of the brawl that ensues he’s introduced to his new partner, Brandon Lee.
I feel like an asshole saying it but I kind of have mixed feelings about Brandon Lee, the O.G. Mark Dacascos. He was a good martial artist, a decent actor, obviously it was such a tragedy what happened to him, and it was cool that Bruce Lee had a legacy in him. But he was maybe too good at playing an uptight nerd like this character. It’s a funny idea that Dolph knows more about Asian culture than he does, so I’m not complaining. I’m just saying for all the hype Brandon Lee gets I’m not sure he had the presence of a superstar. He was more of a foil or a sidekick. You definitely like Dolph better than him in this one. I don’t know, maybe that’s blasphemous to say. I’ll watch some of his other movies and hopefully I’ll be wrong and I’ll repent.
The head Yakuza turns out to be Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who played lots of bad guys in the ’90s, including in KICKBOXER 2, THE PERFECT WEAPON, NEMESIS, MORTAL KOMBAT and THE PHANTOM. He’s pushing a powerful new drug (another constant of the era) which is secretly manufactured in his brewery. I wonder if that’s what’s up with all these microbrews around here, I should check for Yakuza symbols in their logos. The movie also has Tia Carrera as a singer/love interest, yet another trademark of ’90s movies. I never was into her but she had a good run there I guess. Hopefully she saved some money from WAYNE’S WORLD and TRUE LIES.
Tagawa is one of those guys that gets typecast as villains because he just seems so convincingly cruel. In this one the “just how evil is this guy?” scene goes to new levels of depravity. When a junkie comes to him begging for leniency he convinces her she has to have sex with him to pay off her debt. In front of his friends. But when she’s stripped down to her lingerie instead of having sex with her he has somebody hand him a sword and cuts off her head. And he videotapes the whole thing. Kind of a pervert, in my opinion. Worse than R. Kelly.
The director is Mark L. Lester, who did COMMANDO, so it’s nice to see Dolph pickup a car and put it on its side to use as a shield. He never carries a log on his shoulder, though. But there’s lots of good craziness here. Dolph jumps over a car that comes after him, much like Mario jumping over a barrel. He fights some guys while holding a cup of tea, much like Dirty Harry foiling a bank robbery while eating a hot dog, but more classy. A Yakuza commits suicide by breaking his own neck while in police custody. At the end he sword fights Tagawa to the death in public, then Brandon Lee jokes about it. I knew Dolph could take the starch out of that guy’s collar.
Lester also did the movies CLASS OF 1984 and CLASS OF 1999 that I reviewed recently. So that’s four pretty distinctive movies by this guy. That can’t be a coincidence. I have looked over his filmography and I doubt he has any others as good but it’s worth investigating I think.
This is a fun movie and as an added bonus it’s only 79 minutes long. I mean I like a good long movie but you gotta respect a good short one too. It just gets in there, does what needs to be done, and then gets out. Like a ninja. No time for fucking around. No time to stop and get a bottle of water out of the refrigerator like Steven Seagal in BELLY OF THE BEAST. It is not a guest that overstays its welcome. It’s a guest that comes over and makes everybody laugh and then says something funny just as it jumps out the window and everybody’s still in a good mood afterwards and wants to invite it over again.
BRIDGE OF DRAGONS isn’t too bad either. It’s more proof that Isaac Florentine may be the most dependable and promising director to come out of DTV action. This is an earlier film by the director of UNDISPUTED II and THE SHEPHERD: BORDER PATROL and like those movies it has some dynamic camera angles, good martial arts scenes and some weird touches to the story that make it less generic than your, uh, generic DTV. It’s also another charismatic performance by Dolph.
Although there are no dragons or even bridges this is kind of a fantasy film. It takes place “somewhere between the future and the past” (wouldn’t that be the present? I’m confused) so Dolph uses modern military gear and there are helicopters but most people dress medeival and use swords and horses and there are princesses and shit. There are lots of Europeans but the general and princess are Asian, the soldiers wear Nazi-esque uniforms and the helicopters say “666” on the side of them. Which sounds evil but I’m sure it’s just a district number or some innocent squiggles or something.
This time Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays a brutal general about to marry a princess. She doesn’t want to marry him, especially after her nurse or nanny type lady tells her that this guy actually murdered her dad, the rightful king. Like in SHOWDOWN he is a good swordsman in this one. But not good enough for Dolph, I bet.
Dolph is “Warchyld,” the most elite and feared soldier who was plucked out of a camp by the general and trained to be the ultimate badass. He’s loyal to the general and when Princess Halo tries to run away on her wedding night he tracks her down and brings her back. But then when he sees the general slap her he quickly changes his mind, starts kicking everybody’s asses and takes off with her to join the rebellion. Also by the way these two fought each other in an underground pole fighting contest but they were wearing masks so they didn’t recognize each other at the time.
This is not really one of the better action movies, but I enjoyed it. Like anything the most interesting action is the hand-to-hand. The gun battles do give you a nostalgic feeling though because it’s the kind where they just keep showing explosions that cause stuntmen to fly through the air in slow motion. I don’t think there are any digital effects at all. Reminds me of all those post-RAMBO jungle war movies. But a little more watchable.
The story is all cliches but I was surprised how effective it was anyway when it got to the scene where Dolph basically stages a coup during the wedding. All the soldiers have to search their hearts to decide on the spot whether to team with the asshole general or the traitorous soldier. It reminded me of THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED when the soldiers who you assume are with the coup give a fist in the air salute to the crowd of protesters.
Although this is not entirely a martial arts movie Florentine betrays his past as a Power Rangers director by doing lots of WHOOSH sound effects when people turn their heads or remove their hats, or even when the camera is a POV shot and represents the turning of a head. So it’s pretty cartoony or old school kung fu theater. I don’t like those whooshy camera moves but when it just means somebody’s whipping their head around it’s goofy enough to win me over.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.