a critiQal film review Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991)

  • DVD
  • Blu-Ray

Plot: Det. Chris Kenner (Lundgren), an American raised in Japan, honors the code of the samurai. His new partner, Det. Johnny Murata (Lee), a Japanese-American, prefers malls and MTV. Together, they face off against the newest threat to Los Angeles: the Yakuza, an ancient Japanese crime organization immediately recognized by the ornate tattoos that cover their bodies.

669 words (Est. Reading Time 3m 20s)

While perusing NetFlix®, searching for the film I wanted to see next, I stumbled across Showdown in Little Tokyo. I was about to pass it by, when the description, namely “in his first major American theatrical release, Brandon Lee…”, caught my eye. The film starred the famous son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, and it was his first big American film? Suddenly, I was interested.

While Brandon Lee’s film career – and life – were cut short after being killed on the set of his tour de force performance in The Crow (1994), I knew he’d had previous films…I just hadn’t ever seen any of them. Toss in Dolph Lundgren, who has recently come back into the spotlight thanks to his role in The Expendables (2010)…and some title familiarities with Kurt Russell’s cheesy action comedy Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and I figured I was in for some fun. Oh, how wrong I was.

When filmgoers think of Dolph Lundgren, while a few films immediately come to mind (Rocky IV (1985), Universal Soldier (1992) and now The Expendables (2010)), they are nevertheless overcome by the unshakable image of a muscle-bound moron…and Showdown in Little Tokyo goes a long way to explaining why.

As the film’s big star, Dolph, a supposed martial arts master, grunts his way through this ridiculous buddy cop action B-movie with no flair whatsoever. Whether he’s impersonating a gun-toting Rambo, impersonating the evil karate teacher from The Karate Kid (1984), or making time with Wayne’s World vixen Tia Carrere, his stone face gives nothing away, and the viewer gets the distinct impression that, despite a film that basically spends most of it’s time stoking his ego, he’s rather bored with the whole thing.

Brandon Lee, as Dolph’s main suck-up…er, partner…unfortunately gets the short end of the stick in Showdown in Little Tokyo. Aside from the whole “son of Bruce Lee” vibe thrown back into his face time and again – as he both gets pointers from Dolph Lundgren on his martial arts technique and has to spend the whole movie pretending he’s the weak link in that area – he has to suffer the extra humiliation of throwing his comedic sidekick shtick up against the uncaring brick wall that is Dolph. While he probably didn’t have much say in the matter – despite his heritage, this was his first big American theatrical release, remember – it’s still sad to see him so ill-used.

Culture-clash has been a central theme in lots of action comedies, including the above-mentioned Big Trouble in Little China (1986) as well as other buddy-cop films like Shanghai Noon and Rush Hour (1998), and with some success. Showdown in Little Tokyo, however, is not one of those successes.

At first, it seems to have it all – an action hero (Lundgren), a cool villain (the feared Yakuza, personalized by Mortal Kombat (1995) villain Cary-Hiryuki Tagawa), a budding martial arts star (Lee), a female vixen (Carrere), the whole buddy cop/culture-clash idea and more nudity and gunplay than the viewer can shake a stick at. But, as the film wears on, the viewer realizes that the plot – shaky to begin with – is merely there to loosely tie a multitude of vignettes on excess together.

Ridiculous and pathetic on so many levels, Showdown in Little Tokyo then adds in some truly horrendous acting (and don’t get me started on how bad the gunplay sequences are), and goes straight past so-bad-it’s-good territory directly to just plain bad without passing Go, or collecting $200.

On a side note, while Dolph may have appreciated this blatant stroke of his ego back in ’91 (back when he thought he was on top of the world), it’s probably a sore spot now, as it merely emphasizes a lot of the qualities that caused Dolph to fade from the public eye in the first place…and with Dolph’s star back on the rise again, it’s a good bet he, just like the rest of us, wishes that films like Showdown in Little Tokyo had never seen the light of day.

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