DOUBLE DRAGON (1994), loosely based on the video game series, is a sci-fi fantasy action kids movie from the director of THE RETURN OF BRUNO and the producers of NATURAL BORN KILLERS. I do not personally consider it to be a good movie, but upon this rewatch I found it somewhat enjoyable on the strength of its specific only-in-the-‘90s strain of complete inexplicability.
It stars Mark Dacascos (a year after ONLY THE STRONG, a year before KICKBOXER 5 and CRYING FREEMAN) and Scott Wolf (the same year Party of Five started) as martial artist brothers, Alyssa Milano (in the window between Who’s the Boss? and EMBRACE OF THE VAMPIRE) as the leader of a vigilante group, and Robert Patrick (who had only done FIRE IN THE SKY and two T-1000 cameos since T2) as an evil gang leader/businessman obsessed with obtaining an ancient Chinese medallion that would give him super powers. It takes place in the cyberpunky post-The-Big-Quake New Angeles in the futuristic year of 2007, with all the satirical billboards and colorful street gangs that implies.
Dacascos and Wolf play Jimmy and Billy Lee, who are introduced losing at a martial arts competition, and then it’s never really about that again. On their way home in The Dragon Wagon (a modified station wagon with jet engine) they fall for a Bugs Bunny style trick where they pull over so Billy can hit on a woman that is actually a man in a wig. That’s when they’re ambushed by a gang of liberty-spike-sporting punks called The Mohawks led by a big dude called Abobo, who I was excited to recognize as Nils Allen Stewart, a prolific stuntment, henchman, and guy who played Jesse Ventura in a cable biopic. This is the same year he played a Mongol guard in THE SHADOW and a bar fight oil worker in ON DEADLY GROUND (plus THE MASK and STICKFIGHTER), so yes, you can tell that he has his trademark bald-except-for-a-braid-on-the-back hairstyle under the wig.
Abobo sees that the Lee brothers’ guardian Satori Imada (Julia Nickson, SIDEKICKS) has half of the magic medallion that Koga Shuko (Patrick) is searching for, but the gang is chased off by the Power Corps, led by short-blonde-haired manic pixie dream guerrilla Marian Delario (Milano). There’s a funny gimmick that the designs on their clothes exactly match the graffiti wall behind them, but, as one of the screenwriters complains in the blu-ray extras, it’s weirdly staged to show them rappelling down and getting into place rather than being camouflaged and then revealing themselves, as obviously intended.
The Lee brothers live in a closed one-screen movie theater filled with props, sporting equipment, a piano and various junk. I didn’t recognize Nickson as Co from RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and she’s not that much older than them, so I thought at first she was their sister or girlfriend, not the friend of their parents who raised them. She gives them her half of the magic medallion before dying when the bad guys burn the theater down.
Shuko is a funny villain. Rather than going the FIST OF THE NORTH STAR route of just having white dudes with Japanese names, they have him explain that he changed it to sound cool. Despite his ridiculous two-tone flat top hairstyle he’s so powerful that in this world, Rice Krispies are called Shuko Rice Krispies. But he would rather have magic powers. He already can turn himself into an animated shadow, but he wants more. So he puts pressure on his henchmen, Huey and Lewis (You see? Humor.) played by the all-star duo of John Carpenter regular Jeff Imada (also the stunt coordinator and second unit director) and prolific henchman Al Leong. And he punishes Abobo for not getting the medallion by injecting him with steroids that puff him up into a weird blob man (makeup by Chiodo Brothers).
He’s appropriately sad about it and later cries while looking in a mirror.
This is only the second live action film based on a video game, released a year after SUPER MARIO BROS. and a year before MORTAL KOMBAT, and it really feels like a bridge between the two. It’s standing in MARIO’s weird “I guess we do an incoherent dystopian sci-fi satire with little references to things from the game?” approach to video game adaptation, dipping one toe into KOMBAT’s “maybe a martial arts movie with weird fantasy elements?” But when it comes down to it it kind of comes across like what would happen if Troma was offered a much bigger budget to make a movie that’s okay for kids. It’s got the scummy mohawk dudes, the preposterously broad acting, the occasionally pretty funny but mostly extremely stupid humor. And the feeling of not exactly being a comedy but not taking anything at all seriously.
It’s definitely going for that ROBOCOP or at least DEMOLITION MAN type of sci-fi satire. Pretty much nobody does it half as good as Verhoeven, but I usually appreciate any attempt. Here that’s mainly having George Hamilton and Vanna White, playing themselves, as news anchors. It’s Channel 102, which in itself I think was meant as a “wouldn’t it be crazy if there were that many channels” type of speculation. Andy Dick plays himself as the weatherman, which is truly predicting the future because NewsRadio hadn’t started yet so nobody knew who he was. (He’s credited as “Smogcaster,” but his real name is clearly on screen for the broadcast.) Then there’s jokes like Jerry Brown is vice president and Madonna is leaving Tom Arnold.
That stuff’s cute, but another aspect of its attempted ROBOCOPness seems more off base in retrospect. The ruthless sensationalism of the media was a common target of satire in those days (see also the aforementioned NATURAL BORN KILLERS), but in this the reporters antagonize the police and spin their stories to make street gangs look better. Are you kidding me? Show me an American TV news station that doesn’t regurgitate absolutely any official police statement as fact. It can’t really work as satire when it has absolutely no basis in anything. We also hear that the police department is “woefully underfunded.” Yeah, that’s something you can picture happening.
I think this kinda stuff might be the residue of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns depicting a Gotham City crippled by weird gangs as a reason for its crime fighter hero to come out of retirement. It was perfect for that story, but seems crazy when it’s L.A. in a movie made two years after the Rodney King verdict.
When the gangs break a truce and run wild the police all refuse to go out at night (okay, that part I buy). But one brave and courageous cop, a true hero, Marian’s dad Chief Delario (Leon Russom, TRUE GRIT) goes out there by himself. At the end, after the kids and the chief have stopped the rich guy, the gangs and the various magic ninjas and shit, the cops who were too scared to do anything salute the chief and say “Night shift, reporting for duty, sir!” We’re supposed to get goosebumps at their admiration for the chief’s heroism instead of say “Fuck you, dude, these teenagers already did the job you get paid for.”
One piece of futurism that has turned out to be accurate is a scene where Marian’s kid brother (Cory Milano, STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY) is playing with virtual reality goggles in his room. It’s just crude animation of a rollercoaster, but the basic idea of kids with VR goggles for fun is one that seemed far-fetched for years and now is becoming normal.
The best action is probly the vehicle stuff – the car/truck chase at the beginning is kind of cool, and there’s also a chase on water (post-quake there’s a “Hollywood River,” so they crash into a Hollywood Tour River Boat and it blows up.) The fight stuff is even more goofy, but Dacascos at least gets to do some kicks, and Shuko splits into two “shadow warriors” or “ninja wraiths” played by Roger Yuan (AMERICAN KICKBOXER, RING OF STEEL, LETHAL WEAPON 4) and Ron Yuan (DRIVE, BLOOD AND BONE, BIRTH OF THE DRAGON). Marian fights a bodyguard lady with a whip called Linda Lash (Kristina Wagner, A LOW DOWN DIRTY SHAME), who I guess is from the game. I like when the Lees magically get red and blue outfits like in the game – makes it more cartoony and Power Rangersy. There are a couple decent gags like somebody getting kicked through a wall with graffiti that says “POW!” or an actual Double Dragon arcade machine getting kicked during a fight. Well, I guess only one of those is decent.
The most enjoyably dated stuff is the shitty digital effects for Shuko’s various powers. Sometimes he turns into a flat image that looks like an emboss filter on Photoshop. And the most dated thing politically is that Jimmy uses the magic powers to possess Shuko and make him write a check to fund the police. Yeah, that should solve everything.
I wondered if fans of the video game liked the movie – my cursory glance says no. According to “Dojo Master,” the editor of a Double Dragon fan page, “The movie resembles the game in almost no way… For some reason, the movie, cartoon and comic books all make the Lee brothers derive their powers from some stupid material object and not their martial arts. Basically, without the medallion, swords or statues, they are helpless babies… This movie fails in every way possible.” (He also complains about “a good looking blonde who never gets naked,” so I defer to him not on cinematic quality, but only whether it’s true to the spirit of the game.)
Don Murphy was a producer with some level of infamy – he was a pioneering internet hothead in the days of AOL message boards, so everyone thought it was funny when Quentin Tarantino punched him at a restaurant one time. But he was an important ‘90s figure in that he and his partner Jane Hamsher caught on to Tarantino early and, as young rebels fresh out of film school, became producers of NATURAL BORN KILLERS. (Hamsher wrote a book about it called Killer Instinct: How Two Young Producers Took on Hollywood and Made the Most Controversial Film of the Decade, which I wrote about a while back.)
Though Hamsher was more interested in the gritty indie stuff they were doing (APT PUPIL, PERMANENT MIDNIGHT), Murphy was ahead of the curve on trying to make comic book and “nerd property” movies – he was behind FROM HELL and THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and then the TRANSFORMERS movies. He seems to have been completely pushed aside on those creatively, but he had gone around for years trying to convince someone that was something to make into a movie. And if you remember, at the time it seemed so obvious but also so unlikely that it was finally happening. It took Murphy realizing that people a little younger than him were into that shit and then relentlessly pushing it until Steven Spielberg finally bit.
So back in the early ’90s, Murphy had played this arcade game Double Dragon and thought there was enough there to make a story out of. As luck would have it, he sold it around the same time as NBK, and the two filmed at the same time.
But while NBK was produced by Warner Brothers with a then-A-list director and top shelf marketing, DOUBLE DRAGON was a product of Imperial Entertainment, a joint venture between Danish film company Scanbox Entertainment and U.K.-based producers Ash, Sundip and Sunil Shah. They had produced ANGEL TOWN, LIONHEART, NEMESIS and SHOWDOWN, and some of their other 1994 releases include TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION, THE GREAT BIKINI OFF-ROAD ADVENTURE, ANIMAL INSTINCTS II, IT’S PAT: THE MOVIE, GUARDIAN ANGEL, TAMMY AND THE T-REX and LION STRIKE. So a DOUBLE DRAGON movie from this company had a chance to be entertaining, but probly not slick enough for mainstream success. It’s not surprising that it didn’t catch on the way New Line’s MORTAL KOMBAT did a year later.
Director James Yukich was a prolific video director in the early days of MTV, most associated with Genesis and Phil Collins (he did “Sussudio,” “One More Night” and “Don’t Lose My Number”). He also did a bunch of Pat Benatar and Debbie Gibson, and Michael Jackson’s “Liberian Girl.” After DOUBLE DRAGON he got into doing kids concert movies (HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, CHEETAH GIRLS) and comedy specials (Katt Williams, Chelsea Lately). His only other narrative feature was A FARE TO REMEMBER starring Malcolm Jamal Warner (1999).
The early drafts were by Paul Dini (animation writer best known as the creator of Harley Quinn) and Neal Shusterman (now a popular young adult author), later rewritten by the team of Michael Davis (PREHYSTERIA! 1-3, writer/director of MONSTER MAN and SHOOT ‘EM UP) & Peter Gould (later a writer, director and producer on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul).
The MVD Rewind Series blu-ray includes a feature length amount of interviews with Davis, Gould and Murphy. I was unprepared for how thorough these extras are, but I found them more interesting than most. They did leave me with one question: why did the writers have to jump through so many hoops to explain Robert Patrick’s character having a Japanese name when, at least according to this Double Dragon wiki, they made up the character for the movie? Why not just give him a different name?
In the interviews, Murphy says he envisioned the movie as a “gritty martial arts film,” but that it came out “some child’s nightmare – but in a fun way.” That’s not a bad description. I don’t think it needed to be gritty, but it would be hard to argue that it’s not childish in a bad way at times. I believe there’s some farting, but I’m mainly talking about the movie’s overconfidence about how funny it is for people to scream.
But there are a couple lines I sincerely laughed at. Like when Billy says, “My whole life just flashed before my eyes. Dude! I sleep alot!”
I imagine the only people who really love this movie are people who saw it and liked it when they were kids. I did see it when it was new on video, but I was in my twenties, and only kind of liked a couple things about it. Any nostalgia I have is not for the movie itself, but the times that created it. So put me down not as a fan, but someone who just kinda appreciates that it somehow exists.