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American Yakuza

tn_americanyakuza“Viggo Mortensen is… AMERICAN YAKUZA.” That’s what it says on the trailer. This is a rare early Viggo lead role and it’s pretty much a straight up action/crime movie. In the tradition of AMERICAN NINJA, AMERICAN KICKBOXER, AMERICAN SAMURAI and AMERICAN BEAUTY, Viggo is an American white guy who earns the trust and acceptance of the Yakuza, complementing their traditions and rituals with his own American spirit. When they drink sake he drinks Bud Light or Wild Turkey. But don’t worry man, he’s cool. I’ll explain.

mp_americanyakuzaIt all starts when Viggo, fresh out of the joint, gets a job driving a forklift in a warehouse. One day he sees some guys sneaking in with guns, and a massacre ensues. He intervenes with a badass forklift maneuver, impaling the windows of an occupied car, lifting it up, smashing and dropping it through a window on the side of the warehouse. Then he grabs a survivor, brings him to a hotel and finds an underworld doctor to pull the lead out of him. He ends up getting fired from the warehouse job (lied about his record on the application) but hired by the Yakuza who run the place (saving the boss’s life is a helluva first impression).

So what the hell, he goes along with it, which pisses off the rank and file who resent this gruff American so easily entering their inner circle and not even understanding their traditions. It’s not too fun for him either. In one of my favorite scenes he goes along on some deliveries and pickups. The other guys obnoxiously sing along to a tape of Japanese pop music, purposely annoying him and making him feel left out. When they stop and get out he ejects the tape and hears some crappy American rock on the radio – it’s like he’s going up for air. But they’re back right away and pop the tape back in, and start singing again.

At the next stop he ejects the cassette again, pulls the tape out of the cartridge and shoves it all halfway in so it’ll get eaten up when they try to play it again. You see that? That’s the kind of ingenuity and quick thinking my man’s got. They didn’t know they were dealing with an American Yakuza.

It’s funny how these movies make you sympathize with the white dude not fitting in, as if those guys really had an easy time making it in this country and it’s just not fair that a white dude gets the cold shoulder from them. But it doesn’t matter because Viggo’s so cool you’re gonna side with him no matter what.

I can’t really go on without SPOILERing a major plot twist. So I’m gonna do it. Get ready. We soon learn that Viggo is actually an undercover FBI agent. It works for the story, setting up that classic undercover dilemma, the torn loyalties, the guilt of betraying someone who trusts you, the temptation to switch sides. And that fits the John Woo influenced style (note: you never see Viggo jumping across a counter firing two handguns in any of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies. But you see it in this). But I have to admit I was disappointed that Viggo was a cop. I was enjoying it as what I call a Blue Work Shirt action movie – the ones where the hero is just a down on his luck working class stiff, just looking for work at a dock or construction sight, stumbles across something or other that leads to violence. It would be cool for Viggo to be that guy, but it was a fake out.

On the other hand it’s kind of cool that this early Viggo vehicle has parallels to his Oscar nominated EASTERN PROMISES (his best performance so far in my opinion). He doesn’t get the tattoos though. I thought he would, but he didn’t. Anyway, the good news is this undercover business leads to some real good macho male bonding, enemies who earn each other’s undying respect and all that. I love that shit.

This was 1994, Viggo had already had some big roles in PRISON, TEXAS CHAINSAW 3, THE INDIAN RUNNER, BOILING POINT, CARLITO’S WAY. But being the title character in a DTV cop action thriller deal isn’t something I expect to see on his filmography there.This is an unusual one.

It’s not the kind of layered performance EASTERN PROMISES was, but he’s really fuckin cool in it, and funny too. Another part I love is when he’s told the boss needs to talk to him and he’s driven to this place where he finds the whole gang standing waiting for him in matching suits and in a ritualistic formation on the stairs, some kind of initiation ceremony. The boss asks if he wants to join and he croaks, “Hahem. Yeah.” You don’t really think of Viggo as a funny actor, but I think he can be.

The director is Frank A. Cappello, a guy who wrote SUBURBAN COMMANDO. He was also one of the writers of CONSTANTINE, which I kind of liked. As a director he did NO WAY BACK starring Russell Crowe (maybe I’ll check that out) and HE WAS A QUIET MAN, the Christian-Slater-is-a-psycho movie that somebody told me was kind of good. Hmmm.

If I got one complaint it’s that it seems a little easy to me. Yeah, he saved the guy’s life, but maybe he oughta do more to earn their trust, or he should have more close calls at blowing his cover. It doesn’t feel as real as an undercover movie like DONNIE BRASCO. But it’s solid, man – great lead performance, enjoyable story, some good action, good visuals, unusual touches, brief appearance by Robert Forster. I’m really surprised how good it is, actually. Young Viggo should’ve made more movies like this.

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 30th, 2009 at 1:02 am and is filed under Action, Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

35 Responses to “American Yakuza”

  1. Hi Vern! Cool review of one of my fave DTV movies, although I disagree with the idea that Viggo’s character was
    accepted so easily. Witness the scene where he is handed a sniper rifle to oversee the meeting
    between Shuji and Campanella (Michael Nouri) – its very subtly done but the whole scene is a test.

    Speaking of Michael Nouri – have you ever seen The Hidden? One of the best genre movies of the ’80s.

  2. Vern, I love you for finding forgotten gems like these, keep up the good work man!

  3. Hm… not sure I can find it locally, but it reminds me of the TV series _Wiseguy_.

    Which by the way, you seriously ought to watch if you haven’t done so yet, V. I can vouch for the first season at least, since that came out on DVD recently; I had never seen an episode of it before then. Unsure about the second season (was there a second season!?), but the first season is split into two complete story arcs (with a couple of intermission eps subtly leading into the second arc).

    It’s hard to choose which arc is better, too. The first one is more ‘realistic’ and locally grounded in some ways–New Jersey mob family, Vinnie gets to know and like them but has to be betraying them constantly but is also trying to protect them personally. John Woo would love the brotherhood themes involved. The second arc features a much larger-scale QUANTUM organization kind of story (though this only slowly becomes apparent), with one of Kevin Spacey’s first breakout performances as Lex Luthor! Um, well, no, but kind of. More like Kaiser Soze. If Kaiser Soze was really brilliantly insane (instead of just brilliant) and ultimately more than a little pitiable childlike genius in love with his sister. And vice versa.

    My only dislike about the first arc is that the first pilot ep as a ridiculously over-the-top ending (submachine guns with rocket launchers mounted on top!–sure to be the next military craze!) and another early episode ends with the writers pulling a save almost literally out of their ass at the end (having written themselves totally into a corner). My only dislike about the second arc, is that (as I told my Dad at the end of it–and he agreed) nothing in it would have really changed had Vinny not been there. He’s more like along for the ride, though very personally involved in everything. So in that regard I love the first arc more; but I love the scope of the second arc more. Plus Spacey just dominates as a barely functional borderline autistic savant ADD criminal genius mastermind, whom you can hardly guess at any given time will do something awesome or else curl up in a corner whining for his sister to come shoot a speedball between his toes. (um, spoiler.)

    The series is written by Stephen J. Cannell (and Steve Boccho, if I recall correctly), who was just getting out of doing less serious shows like the A-Team and Greatest American Hero (this was the very end of the 80s, and a lot of the show feels like the tail end of the 70s!!) and wanted something a lot more dramatically heavy. I’d say he succeeds, even if his genre roots occasionally show. (I _desperately_ wanted to see the car with the machine guns in its lights and the multi-barrel minigun in its trunk again!! But after its first early appearance in the second arc, it disappears; even when it most reasonably might have made a return appearance near the end. Sigh.) Prison life, while not shown, is described awfully straightforwardly for a prime-time network late 80s/early 90s show. (Though come to think of it, I seem to recall this running at 9pm central/10pm eastern.) Vinny’s description of _exactly_ why a kid in his neighborhood should stay out of crime is one of those amazing out-of-left-field scenes. (Happens during an intermission ep, after Vinny returns to his old neighborhood; the kids there think he’s someone to emulate because of how high he’s risen in the mob.)

    Anyway, your review of this movie reminded me of that; so I thought I’d share. {g!}

  4. Apart from EASTERN PROMISES, this one also reminds me of that failed 1990s vehicle that was designed to turn David Duchovney into a movie actor. I seem to remember it being a uniformly awful movie, one of those sad specimens that tried to patch together various popular trends into something acceptable. If I remember correctly, it owed a lot to both Tarantino and the television show E.R.

    And whatever his other skills, Timothy Hutton just doesn’t inspire fear as a crime boss.

  5. One thing that annoys me is that Viggo starred in a remake of Vanishing Point, and whenever they air it the little caption says that it’s the real Vanishing Point, which I’m dying o see. So that’s a nuisance.

  6. So I went to Netflix to see if I could add this movie to my queue, and it turns out that there is a sequel to American Yakuza and it has Michael Rooker & Bobcat Goldthwait in it!? Check out the write up.

    Back to Back: American Yakuza 2(1996) R

    A run-in with an inept bank robber (Bobcat Goldthwait) and getting tossed in jail thanks to a Mafia-connected cop puts the cap on a terrible day for ex-policeman Bob Malone (Michael Rooker). Things go from bad to worse when his teenage daughter shows up to bail him out, and an escaping Japanese hit man (Ryo Ishibashi) takes the pair hostage. With the mob and the police on their trail, the improbable threesome must join forces to survive.

    This might be one of those rare instances like T2, Aliens, The Godfather Part II, or The Empire Strikes Back where the sequel is even better then the original.

  7. I don’t know if it’s better but it is bug nuts insane.

  8. Lawrence,

    I agree, your choice of words is much more appropriate. I was trying to be sarcastic, but it is not easy to convey sarcasm in a talk back post.

  9. Clearly, AY2 is trying to go the Aliens or The Devil’s Rejects route by expanding on the themes of the original in a different genre. In this case, they switched from an Asian-inspired undercover action-thriller to a Bobcat Goldthwait buddy action-comedy. It’s a natural progression, if you think about it.

  10. The funny thing is the summary for AY2 could also be the summary for a new police academy movie.

    Police Academy 8: American Yakuza “The sun rises in the east but sets in the west”.

    A run-in with an inept bank robber (Bobcat Goldthwait) and getting tossed in jail thanks to a Mafia-connected cop puts the cap on a terrible day for ex-policeman Bob Malone (Michael Rooker). Things go from bad to worse when his teenage daughter shows up to bail him out, and an escaping Japanese hit man (Ryo Ishibashi) takes the pair hostage. With the mob and the police on their trail, the improbable threesome must join forces to survive. Plus Michael Winslow is back with more amazing sound effects!

  11. Considering I’ve never watched a frame of porn in my life, the associations that the phrase “improbable threesome” conjures up are more than a little disturbing. (Or that might just be a mistaken impression connected to Bobcat Goldthwaite as one of that threesome: though the description doesn’t in fact include him there.)

    On the other hand, try substituting that title under the cover for the original film and coming up with a plot!

    {{“American Yakuza 3: Improbable Threesome” An undercover cop (Award winning actor Viggo Mortensen), attempting to infiltrate a Yakuza ring, develops an unexpected split personality, both of whom are lured into an insidious web of desire by the daughter of a rival clan’s chieftain — himself secretly an American Yakuza (Bobcat Goldthwaite)!}}

    It would be like Evil Dead 2, or The Incredible Hulk: a reboot slash sequel featuring the original characters in similar situations.

  12. How do you get through life without seeing any porn? I saw my first porno when I was eight. I assumed that was just the way of the world.

    I am not making fun of you, Sabreman. I seriously want to know. Were you raised on some sort of commune or was this a choice you made of your own volition?

  13. Sounds good, Vern, but why’ve they always got to have an american guy be integrated into these other institutions? How about a film where a scotsman joins the mob? Glaswegian Don, they could call it. It’s even vaguely plausible, given the Italian population over here, so I don’t see why there couldn’t be a scottish mafioso.
    Also, the AY cover reminds me of that John Lennon/Yoko Rolling Stone photo.

  14. I love this movie. The trick he does with the tape always stuck with me so I was glad to see it mentioned in the review.

    There is some fun stuff in the sequel too. There’s a sweet gunfight where the heroes don shades and then use Willy Peter grenades to blind everyone while they calmly mow them down. And a great bit where the cops are looking at security footage of a holdup, and they see this Japanese guy just hanging out all badass and unfazed, an they’re like “He must be Yakuza!” I must of seen it 15 years ago so all of the above may be untrue.

  15. Choice. Profitable, too: I used to win about $50 a month on poker night, from my brother’s business fraternity bros, who would drink while watching porn in the background behind me. _Not_ the best way to keep one’s mind on the game. {g!}

    And, too, it depends on how one defines it I guess. A lot of scenes in movies and books and TV shows and graphic novels etc. could be classified as soft-core porn; the main genre distinction (I guess) being that the overarching material isn’t intended primarily for that purpose. (Example off the top of my head: the sloppy and rather graphic love scene between Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan in the remake of _The Thomas Crowne Affair_. That, and scenes like that, aren’t supposed to be _THE_ point for watching the movie. But taken by itself, like if someone fast forwarded on just to watch that one scene… I always FF through it, though. I consider that sort of thing to be sacred and private between a couple. {s})

  16. So what was the reasoning behind the choice? Is it a moral thing? I’m no huge porn fan myself, but I kind of thought it was an inescapable fact of modern life.

  17. Never mind. Your answer was in your post, which I didn’t read clearly enough.

  18. Stu: You’re not suggesting that someone reboot MICKEY BLUE EYES, are you? Because that would be wrong.

  19. I always enjoy the fun fact that Michael Rooker’s Japanese counterpart in B2B is the guy from Audition.

  20. Jareth: Uh, no. There’s a world of difference between a Glaswegian hardman and Hugh Grant, let me assure you.

  21. There’s a great scene in AY2 where one of the Japanese guys gets injured and is waiting in a country and western bar for his friend. He’s a big Elvis fan and while he’s sitting there, slowly bleeding to death, he spots an elderly Elvis, chowing down on a huge burger. His friend finds him too late, but he’s scrawled a message on a napkin which ends with “I met Elvis!”.

  22. This is a blast from the past! I know I’ve seen it, I just wish I could remember it. All I remember is it had nudity in it, Asian nudity (this was before the internet). But I do remember enjoying it. Now I got to track this and the sequel down, that sounds like a great night in. It blows my mind that Viggo is in this film, who’d’ve thunk it?
    And great observation about the majority white guy trying to fit into a minority situation. Made me laugh out loud just thinking about those poor white guys trying to break into the Yakuza or Triad (there’s got to be an American Triad film, right guys? There’s got to be.)

  23. Not so sure about American Triad, but there was an American Shaolin and American Samurai, which starred
    the useless David Bradley and the awesome Mark Dacascos.

  24. Uhm..isn’t Viggo a European? How did he become American yakuza? I don’t want to criticize the fine people of the US too much (especially since you got rid of Bush) but couldn’t you people find a real american to be an American Yakuza?

    Or maybe there’s one more layer of undercover-ism. A Dane, pretending to be US FBI pretending to be Yakuza.

    Or is was this an outsourcing job, where foreigners did the American bit cheaper?

    I don’t know. Please provide me with a theory to dispell my cognitive dissonance. Thanks

  25. Viggo Mortensen IS American.

  26. geez…you’re right toxic. only half danish. thanks.

  27. Viggo Mortensen is an American.

    And Rob Schneider is … A STAPLER!

  28. Viggo belongs to the world. According to wikipedia, “Mortensen was born in New York City. His American mother, Grace Gamble (née Atkinson), and Danish father, Viggo Peter Mortensen, Sr., met in Norway. His maternal grandfather was from Nova Scotia, Canada. His family moved to Venezuela, Denmark, and Argentinian cities Córdoba and Buenos Aires, where he learned Spanish.”

    But his character in the movie probly didn’t travel as much.

  29. Just droppin’ in with my Happy New Decade wishes to my favorite online author and community. Seriously you guys always keep it about the filmatism and actually try to understand each others views instead of using ‘clever’ yo’ mama jokes during discussions.

    A most prosperous and fulfilling New Year to you all!

    Now I’ll read the review and add the movie to my ‘Flix Queue too!

  30. For some reason this reminded me of an 80’s movie I hadn’t thought of in ages called THE CHALLENGE, which I had watched a few times back in the day on VHS. I know it’s not the same plot, but it has the American guy (I think it was Scott Glenn) trying to fit in with a modern samurai clan – the whole thing is kind of foggy now. I remember really liking it and thinking it was pretty kick ass at the time (plus they smuggled a samurai sword in a wheelchair and then threw the guy in the chair off a bridge of something)… no idea how it holds up today – probably better than THE LAST SAMURAI, heh.

    Anybody remember that one? Don’t think it was ever made available on DVD which is a shame…

  31. Wow, I just plugged that into IDMB and:

    Directed by John Frankenheimer
    Written by John Sayles
    Even had Toshiro Fucking Mifune in it

    I’ve seriously gotta track a copy of that down…

  32. Remo – also, believe it or not, Seagal worked on it. He was the martial arts coordinator.

  33. No shit? The awesome quotient just went up some more then. I remember the action being pretty quick but brutal and to the point, so that would make sense (again – not sure how accurate my memories are of it anymore…). They seriously need to get that out on DVD.

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  35. Post-action fauxteurs (derogatory neologistic Mouthism I just made up that means “directors of shitty action scenes the last 10+ years” in my opinion) should take a lesson from AMERICAN YAKUZA.  

    It has a clever way of getting around a sub-blockbuster budget, showing the essence of an action scene or a suspenseful action moment without always being able to show the full action thing that happens.  

    Of course this doesn’t apply to the awesome badass opening sequence with the forklift and the part where, iIrc, Viggo places a wooden stake in a corpse’s uzi’s trigger well to spray off some automatic suppressive fire.  (Still waiting to see Buffy employ that trick; she needs to step up her stake game.)  

    But, like, the moment when the hot Japanese girlfriend is held at gunpoint, Viggo runs at her, her & her captor’s silhouette, and it’s a really good scene with clear interior geography & action beats, but then it looks like the filmatists knew there was no easy way to finish the moment when Viggo charges & tackles the bad guy as he squeezes the trigger, so instead the editors put together a blinking montage, conveying the essence of what happened without actually showing the collision & all the bloodshed.  It’s more effective as an emotional moment than as the action scene’s big bang capper.  

    Somehow, even though it almost tastes like proto-post-action nonsense when you break it down for its shortcomings, it works.  Reminds me of when Michael Mann & his tv crews would dabble in shitty 80s slo-mo for some of the violent parts of his tv shows MIAMI VICE & CRIME STORY, or like in some Japanese cartoons like the great AKIRA when the mise-en-scene would cut to a single character in space, separated from all previously established geography so we are forced to singularly focus on an individual’s pain & movement regardless of the stuff outside the frame.  It’s the opposite approach of what most of us always prefer (multitudes of stuntmen fighting each other in foreground/middleground/background like in, say, BANGKOK KNOCKOUT or 13 ASSASSINS or BRAVEHEART), but it’s also somehow a little more satisfying than how Nimrod Antal used a similar “You can’t see the fatal wound actually happen” technique in the mostly awesome yakuza-Predator fight in PREDATORS.  

    Anyway, good movie.  I hope its spirit will live on in another BEST OF THE BEST 2 style “under-recognized b-action excellence” award.  Thanks again for the recommendation, Vern.  

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