Double Dragon

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.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 6th, 2021 at 10:50 am and is filed under Action, Reviews, Videogame. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Double Dragon”

  1. I remember this at the theater, but we opted to see Stargate instead, thinking Double Dragon would be there next weekend. We were wrong.

    I’m always a sucker for post-quake LA near future flicks, and this is mildly amusing. Not as bonkers as Escape from LA, (or even JCVD Street Fighter) but never boring, at least!

    (I remember that NBK book and hating everyone in it)

  2. I love that after reading this site daily for the past 5 years, I can get genuinely excited at the mere mention of guys like Nils Allen Stewart.
    Keep making the world a better place, Vern.

  3. How did John Carpenter not cast Julia Nickson as Miao Yin for Big Trouble in Little China?

  4. I played quite a bit of Double Dragon in the arcade as a teenager, and it really had no plot to speak of. Beat up a thousand guys (and a woman with a whip) and rescue your girlfriend. It was kinda like TMNT but only 2 players, and after you got a third of the way through you just had to use one move over and over (a backwards elbow strike) or the cheating computer would slaughter you. It is pretty weird that this game got a movie adaptation though, it was not some smash hit like Pacman or Street Fighter. I guess it is hard to make up a plot based on Centipede or Missile Command though, it would be like trying to adapt Monopoly or Battleship.

    Very few video games back then had a lot of plot, it was hard enough fitting a game into a MB of memory or whatever you were limited to, so plots were generally one or two bad 8-bit images and a couple lines of text. I guess this would theoretically leave a lot of room for world building but these hacks mostly just set the characters in modern day locales and situations because you could shoot on existing locations for cheap. MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE style.

    I have never made it more than 10 minutes through any part of this movie, and I think I have tried 3 times when it happened to be on. Now that most media is streaming and we actually choose what to watch I never get that “well this is on, I guess I will see what it is” experience any more, and I will never attempt to watch this or any other video game movie ever again. I think this is progress as a society. However, I find it very hard to find things to watch nowadays since I don’t have anybody choosing for me. It is a paradox.

  5. “So put me down not as a fan, but someone who just kinda appreciates that it somehow exists.”

    That describes my relationship with this movie pretty well. It’s tonally so over the place and never seem to be able to figure out if it wants to be for kids or an older teenage audience. There are lots of cool things, but also lots of emberassing things. It’s too forgettable to call it an “interesting failure”, but also fun enough to rewatch it once in a while.

    And yet, it holds absolutely no special place in my heart.

    By the way, am I the only one who always loves to see Robert Patrick? That guy really is a reliable character actor.

  6. Honestly, for me the sole redeeming feature of this mess is that they rationalized a way to have the infamously ridiculous-looking video game boss Abobo in an actual live-action movie – that mofo looks like this in the game

  7. Never saw in theaters. It didn’t open where I lived and somehow I didn’t bother to rent it. Only saw it after 2000 when I discovered Dacascos and I kinda love it.

    It’s got nothing to do with the game but then so what? I do have a soft spot for the ‘90s’ idea of what the future will be like. I want movies to make less sense and this one sure does!

  8. So the genesis of the game DOUBLE DRAGON is an interesting one. It is a spiritual successor to a game released the previous year by same designer called RENEGADE. That game was actually a reskin of a Japanese game called NEKKETSU KOHA KUNIO-KUN, which was about a Japanese high-schooler beating up juvenile delinquents. The developers felt that the subject matter wouldn’t play overseas, so they took inspiration from movies like THE WARRIORS and MAD MAX and changed the graphics to post-apocalyptic punks, bikers etc. RENEGADE was popular enough that they refined the formula with DOUBLE DRAGON, adding two players and side-scrolling levels, and it blew up in arcades. Meanwhile NEKKETSU KOHA KUNIO-KUN was hugely popular in Japan and inspired a popular series of games, several of which became huge hits overseas (RIVER CITY RANSOM, SUPER DODGEBALL). So NEKKETSU KOHA KUNIO-KUN (which translates to HOT-BLOODED TOUGH GUY KUNIO) spawned two mega-hit franchises.

    Anyway, this movie sucks.

  9. Naming the henchmen Huey & Lewis seems so gratuitous that I like to imagine that it was a joke that Robert Patrick made up on the fly just for the line “Huey, Lewis… Any news?” but who knows.

    I wonder if there’s different cuts of the movie because I barely remember any satirical stuff in the version I saw, but I do remember the gang using their graffiti camouflage effectively rather than rappeling down.

  10. Could I be the only person on the planet that has seen this but not Natural Born Killers?

    (Natural Born and Trainspotting were both giant ’90s movies that everyone had seen but me. About six years ago Trainspotting was on cable, so I rectified that. But Natural Born still eludes me)

  11. Nah, haven’t seen NBK too.

  12. The Undefeated Gaul

    April 7th, 2021 at 1:21 pm

    NBK is worth it just for Tommy Lee Jones’ delivery of the line “I don’t care what your fucking name is!” He had so much energy in those days.

  13. That is a great line delivery by Jones! Also his reaction shortly thereafter to the news of someone’s death was great.

    Not to hijack from Double Dragon, but I have such a strange reaction to Natural Born Killers that changes every time i watch it. First time was opening night and I’m an edgy teenager who’s recently dumped and also totally into Tarantino and crazy crime shit and filmmaking so i was all about it. Then I saw it 2 more times the next day! Then video comes around and aside from the scene where he’s shaving his head to that track from Last Temptation of Christ, I think its kinda stupid. Watch it again in college and im digging it again, etc.

    Back and forth like this. Last time was after reading that book, happened to catch it on HBO and found the ever changing lighting in a scene very corny and distracting, along with Juliette Lewis yelling “WHY WHY WHY?!?” directly to camera, and the audience, after a mindless killing.

    So I’m guessing if i watch it again i might like it.

    Or i could watch Double Dragon again instead! (Tying it in)

  14. My olds took me to see this when it first came out. I was 9, and I can still vividly remember cracking my first fat during the gratuitous shot of Alyssa Milano’s derriere when she has to crawl through a small opening in front of the two leads.

    Needless to say, Double Dragon has a special place in the dank recesses of my mind, nestled safely between The Weatherwoman and Erotic Ghost Story.

  15. Double Dragon (the game) pretty much spawned the entire ‘beat em’ up’ genre. My favorite probably being COMBATRIBES (all caps is necessary)

    It was pretty standard stuff, except with the gimmick that you’re a weird giant plowing through fields of really small guys, and including moves like grabbing enemies by their ankles and bashing their faces against the pavement like you were beating a rug.

  16. hmmm, don’t know what’s going on with link posting

    Let’s try this

  17. jojo, if you’re into old beat em up games and weird giants grabbing and throwing their enemies, I hope you’ve tried BAD DUDES’ special cousin TWO CRUDE DUDES (aka TOO CRUDE, aka CRUDE BUSTER) where you beat up ISLAND OF DR MOREAU-type hybrids in post-apocalyptic New York.

  18. I remember buying the bootleg of this for $10 back when it was still in theaters. I was a fan of the games, had a crush on Alyssa Milano like most boys my age did since the Who’s The Boss days, liked Dacascos from ONLY THE STRONG and of course Robert Patrick was by that point an iconic villain actor. Man what a piece of shit it turned out to be. I don’t think I ever finished it.

  19. I remember when my grandpa was sick when I was about ten and the entire family was staying at grandma and grandpas to look after him, I would go to her neighbours house and play with the kid that lived there who was my age and we played with dino riders toys and watched Double Dragon on VHS like, every day for two weeks. The movie might be hot garbage but I’ll always love it.

  20. Nils Allen Stewart was in ESCAPE FROM LA, too! He cut a guy’s head off on a basketball court! As soon as I saw that picture, I knew it was him. I just watched this last year, under lockdown. It’s slight, but enjoyably goofy. Patrick seems to be having a lot of fun, and Milano makes a pretty hot blonde.

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