“Y’know – this is a weird part of town.”
August 23, 1991
SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO is a movie I have long enjoyed (here is a pretty dumb review of it I wrote 13 years ago). It’s a buddy cop movie starring Dolph Lundgren (between COVER UP and UNIVERSAL SOLDIER) and Brandon Lee (between LASER MISSION and RAPID FIRE), so any possible deficiencies are easily overcome by their great charisma and the unrepeatable novelty of their team-up. Watching it in the context of these other ’91 movies it does seem slightly primitive; it’s a Warner Bros. movie, but the budget was $8 million, which is less than DOUBLE IMPACT – or even non-action stuff like DEAD AGAIN, THE COMMITMENTS, BINGO, RETURN TO THE BLUE LAGOON and LIFE STINKS – let alone the new state-of-the-art represented by POINT BREAK and TERMINATOR 2. Fortunately it’s in the capable exploitation hands of director Mark L. Lester (STEEL ARENA, CLASS OF 1984, FIRESTARTER, COMMANDO, CLASS OF 1999), so it has heavy doses of The Good Shit. He always gives you something extra.
Just as MYSTERY DATE has its two leads getting into trouble with gangs in Chinatown, this is about two guys fighting a Yakuza drug ring in L.A.’s Japanese district. In this case that’s in their job description as members of the LAPD Asian Crime Taskforce. Dolph’s Sergeant Chris Kenner gets the kind of introduction all his characters deserve: he single-handedly raids an illegal fighting circuit by climbing through a skylight, swinging into the ring on a rope and saying, “Haven’t I told you this is illegal, and it pisses me off?” Then he’s announced as the new challenger and has to fight the guys in the ring.
That would be a heightened enough opening for most directors, but this is Mark L. Lester we’re talking about, so Kenner’s raid also coincidentally takes place like 30 seconds before rival Yakuzas storm in to machine gun the ones running the fights. Kenner takes those guys on too and chases them out to the street. They try to run over him in their vintage convertible and he just leaps over the car like Tony Jaa or Super Mario.
And yet this is still not enough craziness for the Lesterverse, so the next morning Kenner is having breakfast at a favorite Japanese cafe when the same guys in the same car come in to demand protection money from the owner. He casually fights them while still holding his tea in one hand.
This is when we meet Lee’s Detective Johnny Murata, who happens to be walking by as Kenner throws a guy through the window. They’ve never met so they fight for a while before flashing their badges at each other and realizing they’re each other’s new partners.
The gimmick of this buddy team is that white guy Kenner was raised in Japan, speaks Japanese, knows all about Yakuza tattoos and stuff, and is aghast that part-Japanese Johnny knows none of this stuff about “his culture,” because he was raised in the Valley and doesn’t give a shit about any of that (except karate, which he has practiced since he was 4). He wanted to be assigned to Malibu and seems to think that it was a little racist to give him this beat.
(Lee of course was not Japanese – he was of Chinese, Eurasian, Swedish, Irish and English descent – but they needed him to be part Japanese for this one, so he went with it.)
I feel like I’ve seen some movies where it’s painted as shameful for young Asian Americans not to know enough about their heritage, and whether or not you agree with that, it’s novel that this one is okay with him just being American. I think it’s also up to interpretation whether he really doesn’t like sushi or if he’s just saying things like that to get a rise out of Kenner, like when he calls him “you zen warrior fuckin samurai asshole.”
Their casual banter during and between fights is my favorite thing about the movie, and makes me think of it as very light-hearted, so Mrs. Vern was not happy that I called it “funny” and forgot to warn her about the lead villain’s extra-fucked-up Just How Evil Is He scene. Yoshida (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, LICENCE TO KILL, L.A.TAKEDOWN, KICKBOXER 2) is the Iron Claw Yakuza boss trying to take over the territory (and coincidentally the guy who killed Kenner’s parents in front of him when he was little). He recently took over the Bonsai Club by smooshing the previous owner (Philip Tan, BATMAN, MARTIAL LAW) in a car compactor. His whole crew watched and then walked away with mild smiles on their faces like they just watched DOC HOLLYWOOD. Now he has a video tape of club employee Angel (Renee Griffin, HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD II) talking about it, so he punishes her by forcing her to smoke enough “ice” to kill her, then coercing her into sex in front of his men, then while that’s happening he chops off her head with a sword. And he has the whole thing video taped and later shows it to other women as a threat. In my opinion the guy is a real jerk. Just my two cents.
This is also one of C-HT’s best roles because he gets to be more physical than in some of his other movies – shirtless, tattooed, wielding a sword, moving like some kind of reptile – in addition to his traditional talents at making evil speeches and giving you the coldest, cruelest looks capable from a human face. And his criminal enterprise is a fun one. The drug he’s selling “makes rock look like decaf, babe,” says the coroner (Vernee Watson, TRICK BABY, G.I. JOE THE MOVIE), and he hides it in beer bottles. There’s a scene where Yoshida makes a presentation to all the other gangs, so we see a caravan of Hell’s Angels, then a limo, then a lowrider going through the gates into the Red Dragon Brewery.
This is normal for Yakuza movies, but I appreciate the garish clothes in this – lots of loud shirts and ties worn under very ‘90s suits. Dolph does the tank top under pleated slacks thing – very dated, but of course he makes it look good. Brandon is more the everyman, but sometimes he gets flashy ties. Also there’s one Yakuza played by Reid Asato (later in ON DEADLY GROUND) who gets to wear a Hawaiian shirt. Seems fun! In his final fight (spoiler) somebody throws him a sword, and it made me wonder: if the shit ever went down, would someone throw me a sword? Who is the sword thrower in my life? Do I have one? What do I have to do to earn one? It’s worth contemplating, I think.
Minako (Tia Carrere, also in HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN, released the same day, so read that review for full Summer of ’91 context) plays a singer at the Bonsai Club who gets victimized by Yoshida and protected (and more) by Kenner. The character of Minako is unfortunately not in keeping with Sarah Connor Summer – she’s a straight up damsel in distress, spending most of her scenes getting manhandled, threatened, or tied up and gagged. But at least in the workplace she gets to be on stage singing “I Like a Man With a Slow Hand” while other ladies are topless sumo wrestling or having sushi eaten off of their naked bodies.
Speaking of naked bodies, Carrere’s nudity appears to be a body double, while Dolph shows his ass and I think a quick flash of wang. For whatever that’s worth in the ongoing fight for equality.
Lee will have a better showcase in his next movie, but I appreciate that there are tons of action scenes that are not just shootouts. The fights are always fun, especially when the two combine their forces, leaping off of each other and stuff. Kenner has Dominic Toretto style super-strength, so there’s a part where he just punches through a door, grabs the guy on the other side and yanks him out.
And there’s a great part where he jumps off the roof of a house onto a cool sports car, denting the roof. He then ducks next to the car, shooting through its side window, using it as cover. And then, almost like a callback to Lester’s COMMANDO, he lifts it up and rolls it over on its side, which causes it to explode. A very cool exit.
I also really appreciate that the action happens in a variety of locations that all fit nicely into the story. You get a pretty complex fight at a bathhouse where the yakuzas like to kick it. You get a battle at the previously established junkyard, with our boys crushed in a car and Johnny yelling, “Do some of that muscle man stuff, Kenner!” They escape that and get a practicing-and-putting-on-a-headband-in-front-of-a-shrine-to-his-parents-scored-by-electric-guitar montage (music by David Michael Frank, SUBURBAN COMMANDO, OUT FOR JUSTICE, HARD TO KILL, ABOVE THE LAW) and obviously there’s a battle at the brewery. Johnny kicks a guy off a catwalk into a giant vat, then he throws in a lighter saying “You have the right to be dead” and explodes the guy! Which number one is police brutality and number two prevents us from finding out if he would’ve turned into the Beer Joker.
I should mention that these cops do many things that cops absolutely should not do. Kenner just straight up snaps a guy’s neck to sneak into a place, for example. They’re kind of being vigilantes, and there are wisecracks made about it. At one point they have to flee a scene as the other cops arrive.
I should also mention that these Yakuzas are so intense that one of them snaps his own neck while being interrogated.
Gerald Okamura (around the same time as SAMURAI COP) shows up as a guy who tortures them with electrodes, and you’ll see alot of other familiar martial artist/stuntman faces including Roger Yuan (AMERICAN KICKBOXER 1), Simon Rhee (BEST OF THE BEST), Al Leong (I COME IN PEACE) and James Lew (ACTION JACKSON). And apparently Branscombe Richmond (CAGE) is in there too, but I missed him. The stunt coordinator/second unit director is Terry J. Leonard (COBRA, IRON EAGLE II, THE PACKAGE), with martial arts choreographer Clint Cadinha (a stunt double from 21 Jump Street) and fight coordinator Pat E. Johnson (THE KARATE KID, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES).
The titleistical Kenner vs. Yoshida showdown happens in the street with both sides talking about honor and putting down guns to fight with swords they take from some guys in a parade. Kenner runs Yoshida through with the sword, real gruesome, real cool death. The end.
Just kidding! Mark L. Lester would never let that be the end. No, after he impales him he throws him like a dart onto a giant pinwheel firework, which then starts spinning and spewing sparks and then blows up. Obviously that’s enough to make this a classic movie, but an extra cherry on top is that when he first throws him Johnny says “Yes!” excitedly, but after the firework starts going he frowns like maybe it’s too much.
The script is credited to Stephen Glantz & Caliope Brattlestreet, a husband and wife team who had been writers on ‘90s updates of Dragnet and Adam-12. I think “Chris Kenner” is a decent name for a hero, but isn’t it kind of bland coming from a writer named Caliope Brattlestreet? Maybe when that’s your name you have more appreciation for something plain like Chris Kenner.
According to Wikipedia there was an earlier, more serious draft by Steve Sharon (THE DEAD POOL). I don’t think we need a more serious version, but it also says there was an unfilmed chase scene that ended with a fight in a shopping mall. That I could get behind.
Wikipedia also says that Michael Eliot (OUT FOR JUSTICE) and Stuart Baird (LETHAL WEAPON) were brought in to re-edit the movie after Warner Brothers thought it was too slow. I would love to see the full 90 minute cut and I’m open to the possibility of it being better, but I also like that this is a lean 79 minutes.
Because WB didn’t like it apparently they gave it a limited release, so it opened at #16 on 140 screens. CITY SLICKERS was in its 12th week and still playing on 1,060 screens, to give you an idea of how small that was. So congratulations if any of you managed to see it before video.
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In honor of enjoying this classic again I decided to try to re-create the Red Dragon Draft Beer logo. There are some variations seen on the packaging and the front gate of the brewery, but I was mainly looking at blurry DVD screen caps of the version painted on the back of the delivery truck Dolph and Brandon climb onto and hijack. Now available on t-shirts, beer steins or whatever you want at Zazzle.
Rookie martial arts choreographer Clint Cadinha stuck with Dolph for UNIVERSAL SOLDIER and Lee for RAPID FIRE and THE CROW. He also did choreography for DEMOLITION MAN, UNDER SIEGE 2, THE MATRIX, SPIDER-MAN, xXx, THE RUNDOWN and BLADE: TRINITY.
Director Mark L. Lester followed this with the pretty good cops-are-corrupt movie EXTREME JUSTICE in 1993. He continued directing through the mid-teens when he did POSEIDON REX and DRAGONS OF CAMELOT.
Renee Griffin (Angel) was later in ENCINO MAN, CYBORG 2 and THE STONED AGE, and played another character named Angel in THE GREAT WHITE HYPE.
Tia Carrere (Minako) had maybe her best known role as Cassandra in WAYNE’S WORLD the following year. Some of her other action credits include RISING SUN, TRUE LIES, KULL THE CONQUERER and SHOWDOWN IN MANILA. She has been in several movies in recent years, and a voice role in LILO & STITCH and its three DTV sequels has led to her doing a bunch of voice work as well.
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Yoshida) reached iconic villain status when he played Shang Tsung in MORTAL KOMBAT, and of course I also enjoy him in THE PHANTOM and as a non-villain in VAMPIRES. In 1999 he faced off with Dolph again in Isaac Florentine’s BRIDGE OF DRAGONS.
Dolph Lundgren (Kenner) later appeared in the Coen Brothers’ HAIL, CAESAR!
Brandon Lee (Johnny) still had RAPID FIRE in his future before his tragic death filming THE CROW. It will always hurt that he didn’t get to do more, but with his short filmography he made more of an impact than most.