Showdown in Little Tokyo

Showdown in Little Tokyo is one of my guilty pleasures.

It has Dolph Lundgren in the Arnie role, and Brandon Lee as his goofy partner. Before Brandon (son of Bruce, you know) became The Crow (full review) and then was tragically killed on set, he did a few chop socky flicks like this and the less effective Rapid Fire. In this one he plays an Asian Task Force Cop who’s a Valley boy and knows nothing of his culture. Part of what I liked about it was that he never sees the life and embraces Zen. He does however, want to eat sushi off of naked chicks, but who wouldn’t? I mean, hot chicks. Freshly scrubbed ones. Actually it’s probably one of those things that sounds more erotic than it really is, unless you’re an emasculated Japanese salaryman who can only get off by subjugating women.
But it’s that kind of movie. Japanese-scare flicks were big in the ’80s, such as Rising Sun, but by the 1991 it was a bit dated. The movie doesn’t let that bother it. Lundgren plays an L.A. cop with his own rules, whose parents were murdered in Japan by the Yakuza. This led him to love samurai culture so much that he becomes the big white super samurai who likes kicking Yakuza ass, waiting to avenge his parents. His beat seems to be driving around Little Tokyo and waiting for gangsters to threaten store owners, and then destroy their store in the process of kicking the shit out of said gangsters. It’s nice work if you can get it. He meets Brandon this way, as they pull guns on each other, and fight, and then of course get a begrudging, professional respect. And later, they comment on dick size.
You know, like straight guys do. The “unlikely partners” aspect is fun because Lee is, like his father, a totally ripped little psycho dude, and Lundgren is a musclebound man-mountain from Hitler’s most lurid wet dreams. It’s like Laurel and Hard-on with Karate. The fights are very good because Lundgren actually competed in Shotokan tournaments, and Brandon Lee is… Brandon Lee. If hadn’t been killed, he’d be transcending his father’s legacy. Here he’s not reaching for the artistic skies, but it was a start. He’s the clown to Lundgren’s stone-faced straight man. Now another “of course” is that the Yakuza thugs are led by… the guy who killed Dolph’s parents. We knew that was coming. Played by the dependable Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat, John Carpenter’s Vampires) he oozes with evil for evil’s sake. We meet him when he beheads a topless crack whore.
Yup. Tia Carrere plays one of his non-crack whores who sees the murder and goes to the cops. She also gets nude, but it’s a body double. Of course, she sleeps with Dolph; it’s a rare Hollywood film that lets an Asian male wet his chopstick. Now, I bet you’re saying Tommy likes this movie? I’d hate to hear what he has to say if he hated it! But really, the action and humor in Showdown in Little Tokyo absolve it of all its stupidities, including a guy getting impaled on a bent katana and thrown into a fireworks pinwheel that suddenly goes off for no reason except that it would be frickin’ awesome if it did that. You get to see Dolph Lundgren yank a man through a frickin’ door. You get awful jokes like Dolph telling Tia he’s so stealthy that she won’t hear him coming, and then later when she jumps on his Godzilla-size junk, she coyly whispers that she heard him come. Get it?
Brandon Lee makes the best of the ridiculous dialogue, somehow making lines such as “You have the biggest dick I’ve seen on a man” sound funny and not totally gay, after they fight yakuza in a bath house. He also gets to beat up the lead henchman while reading him his Miranda rights, only to throw him into a vat of meth-infected beer, and say “You have the right to be dead.” And he gets to say the line that inspired the title of this review, when they go on their last suicide mission into the bad guy’s lair: we’re gonna kill those guys, and then we’re gonna eat sushi off naked chicks! Because earlier, they saw rich Japanese businessmen doing that in one of those secret Japanese clubs where Japanese people go and do weird Japanese things, like eat sushi, and sing karaoke.
Although it wasn’t released until 1991, Showdown in Little Tokyo is an ’80s movie through and through. From the repetitive electronic soundtrack to the enormous body count of ethnic baddies, the mix of action and humor trying to riff off earlier hits like Commando and Die Hard, it missed the ’90s boat and didn’t realize it had to be more sensitive, and have some sort of message, maybe about the environment, or corporate malfeasance, or homelessness. That makes it a bit of a dinosaur, like the frat boy showing up in a pimp outfit at a costume party. But it made that ’90s concession where if you’re gonna kill a bunch of shady ethnic stereotypes, you have to have at least one of them be a good American. Like Fasil in True Lies, etc. Who was the good Latino in Commando? Exactly.
It’s a good dumb movie with plenty of boobs, guns, karate battles and explosions, and sometimes that’s just what you need. Dolph and Brandon made a good team, and I wish they’d had another chance to work together. Lundgren will return in Sly Stallone’s epic The Expendables, and I hope it jump-starts his career in America again.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? With Russian mobsters, sure.
Quotability Rating: Good
Cheese Factor: Easy cheesey, Japanesey
High Points: Brandon & dolph yukkin’ it up
Low Point: offensive Asian stereotypes
Gratuitous Boobies: Tia’s body double and a hot blonde (and the lead Yakuza guy’s tattooed man-boobies)

Showdown in Little Tokyo on Netflix

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Remembering Brandon Lee: The Crow

Before Heath Ledger’s little pill misadventure prior to his stunning performance as The Joker made it to screen, another actor playing a white-faced smiling avenger in a breakthrough role died before the film was released. Brandon Lee, starring in Alex Proyas’s adaptation of the brutal comic mini-series, The Crow. Due to a tragic and avoidable accident on set, Lee was shot and died 12 hours later in the hospital. The shooting was ruled an accident; with only 8 days of shooting (sic) remaining, the producers finished the film with stunt doubles, in an eerie déjà vu of his father Bruce Lee’s death and the subsequent posthumous release of his final film, Game of Death.
Even eerier was the plot of the film itself, about a murdered musician back from the grave to avenge his death and his raped and murdered fiancé, Shelly. Directed by Alex Proyas, it’s a dark visual feast that proved incredibly influential to films that followed. Lee played Eric Draven, the seemingly invulnerable revenant who hunts down the Detroit thugs who killed him; he rises from his grave when a crow alights on it to caw. Once he has risen, he will not rest until he’s killed everyone involved, and only appears to a young street girl named Sarah, and a sympathetic cop (played by Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson) who stayed with Shelly as she died.
Brandon had previously appeared in a fun but forgettable martial arts actioner called Rapid Fire, and an “unlikely buddies” cop duo with Dolph Lundgren shooting and karate chopping their way to a Showdown in Little Tokyo. That film gets a bad rap, and while ridiculous- it’s made by the same director as the iconic action flick Commando– both Lundgren and Lee make amusing banter out of lines Shane Black would be ashamed to write. They have fun with it, and Lundgren shows range unexplored in most of his other work. Lee was a newcomer, but nearly stole the show with graceful martial arts moves and a snappy sense of comic timing.
In The Crow, he had to play something completely different. A dark and brooding Goth icon clad in a leather trench coat, plastered with white make-up and an ironic doll’s smile. After all, the character created by James O’Barr was based on an amalgam of Ian Curtis, Peter Murphy, and Iggy Pop and the story came from the author dealing with the death of his girlfriend by a drunk driver. Dark stuff. Not something your typical martial arts action star does. But Lee took the character and made him into a playful demonic apparition, not an obsessed Ahab but a spirit not only bent on dragging his tormentors to hell, but comforting the living. In one of the best scenes, he corners Sarah’s junkie mother (Anna Levine; the cut whore in Unforgiven) and squeezes the heroin out of her veins, telling her “Mother is the name of God on the lips of all children. Your daughter is waiting.”
The film is peppered with great dark dialogue from O’Barr’s excellent comics, such as Eric’s sick joke as he torments a pawnbroker: “Jesus walks into a motel, and hands the innkeeper three nails… and says ‘Can you put me up for the night?'” Jon Polito plays the pawnbroker, great as always; you’ve seen him in the Coen Brothers movies, here and there. The cast also includes Tony “Candyman” Todd as a memorable mob gunman, David Patrick Kelly (Sullie from Commando) as gang thug T-Bird, and first-timer Rochelle Davis as young Sarah. She played the role well, but never appeared in a film again. According to articles, she is still disturbed over Brandon’s death, and sadly, has fallen in with people like Eric’s killers (full article).
The screenplay by splatterpunk alumni David J. Schow and John Shirley only falters where it dips into the Hollywood well that demands comic relief; if this were made after The Dark Knight, it would be a different story. But perhaps the brief respites from the oppressive wasteland of the Detroit metro area on Devil’s Night are what the story needed. Alex Proyas, in his first Hollywood film, brings great visual chops to the board. The film is brutally dark but we manage to see everything we need. When Eric sends T-Bird and his car exploding off a pier, he tags the scene with some lighter fluid, giving us a flaming crow silhouette. We get many “crow’s eye views” as Eric’s harbinger bird of death soars the city seeking his victims.
But it’s probably the fight scenes that were most felt. In the final confrontation between Eric and the gang leader (played with an oily evil grin by Michael Wincott) in a roomful of gun-wielding thugs, we can’t help but recall the Joker in The Dark Knight strutting in to the meeting of his enemies. And while Eric has no pencil tricks, his dripping black hair and decrepit make-up are uncanny. But then again, The Crow came after Batman: The Killing Joke, so who knows who influenced who? One thing is for sure, as Brandon somersaults and pirouettes around the room in his trench coat as bullets fly and decimate the scenery, we know the Wachowski Brothers were watching. The famous lobby scene in The Matrix looks like a pale imitation. The film launched Proyas’s career and let him make the excellent Dark City, which may have cribbed a bit from Hellraiser but is still one of the most memorable films of the ’90s, melding film noir and science fiction in ways undreamed of since Blade Runner.
But Brandon, he pulled a James Dean and ended before he started. The story is, a .44 magnum revolver used by Funboy was loaded with shells that had the gunpowder removed, and the slugs replaced, so they’d be visible in the cylinders; this was done to save money and time, instead of finding inert shells. The gun expert did not remove the primers. When he went home, the inexperienced prop crew “played with it,” and an ignited primer sent the slug into the barrel. Then the gun was loaded with blanks for another scene, and the gun was not cleared. So, when the blank was fired, its gunpowder sent the slug lodged in the barrel into Brandon Lee’s abdomen where it hit his spine. His heart stopped before the ambulance arrived, but he was revived, and finally died 12 hours later at the hospital. The shooting was ruled an accident, and as far as I’ve been able to find, no one was sentenced.
Take that as you will, but John Landis went to court for the helicopter accident in The Twilight Zone; who decided to send the gun expert home and keep shooting? Brandon’s death came weeks before the biopic of his father, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story would come out, and the same conspiracy theories appeared. But Brandon didn’t know any ninja secrets; he learned from his father’s partner, Dan Inosanto. It was yet another tragic death heaped upon the Lee family, but instead of an allergic reaction to aspirin, this time it was reckless, if not criminal, negligence. I have a feeling those involved still suffer, if Rochelle Davis is wrecked over things she had nothing to do with. And I doubt the prop handlers are working in Hollywood, but I wonder. Maybe they were some producer’s nephew.
Brandon had great charisma, and probably would have been one of Hollywood’s first modern Asian action stars. The Crow was a huge hit, and would make $50 million in the U.S. alone, the tenth biggest R-rated film that year. For a new star and a director with a relatively unknown franchise, that was big. The other hit was the soundtrack, which included O’Barr influences like The Cure, as well as Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against the Machine and my favorite, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, who also appear onstage at Top Dollar’s club performing a remix of their song “Nervous Xians,” entitled “After the Flesh.” The film definitely would have springboarded him out of the martial arts ghetto with Jean-Claude and Seagal, and who knows what might have been?
Brandon’s tombstone is engraved with an epitaph from the novel The Sheltering Sky that he quoted in an interview before he died. It speaks of the brevity of life and is sadly, much too apt a marker for his brief, bright flare on the Hollywood scene. I’ll always wonder what could have been.

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…”

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