(Note: this Off the Shelf entry is a little bit extra special. That’s because it’s a part of the Cinematic Katzenjammer’s Not-So-Secret Santa Swap blogathon. For my swap, I have the dubious honor of tearing up the Dolph Lundren/Brandon Lee buddy cop film, Showdown in Little Tokyo, which I can’t describe succinctly here except to say that I hated it in the best way possible. Thanks to maestro Nick Powell for setting this whole thing up.)
This probably outs me as an apostate of 80’s and 90’s schlock, but I’ve never been a Dolph Lundgren fan. Color me a member of the zeitgeist; he really is the poor man’s Arnold in every way, a fraction of what everyone’s favorite movie-icon-turned-politician represents on the big screen. In fact, if I had to name a favorite Lundgren film (beyond, of course, Rocky IV), it would be The Expendables 2, a movie I mostly have no use for save for how beautifully Gunnar Jensen sums up the man’s entire professional acting career in a single scene of character-based incompetence. I’m sure he’s a hoot to hang around with, but his oeuvre doesn’t hold a lot of significance for me.
So it’s with trepidation that I slid Showdown in Little Tokyo into my DVD player for this go-round of Off the Shelf, telling myself all the while that I was doing it for a good reason. Imagine my surprise with how the experience turned out. As with other activities I engage in with great reluctance – say, going to the dentist – the payoff wound up being worth the inconvenience of having a stranger jam sharp instruments into my teeth for seventy plus minutes. Let me make one thing abundantly clear: Showdown in Little Tokyo is not a good film by any acceptable definition of the phrase. But it does encapsulate every single goofy trend in disposable, dime-a-dozen action film from its decade and we get to see one of Brandon Lee’s few screen appearances.
That might not seem like much to brag about, but any Lee is good Lee, even Showdown in Little Tokyo, a movie that tries to capitalize on his boyish good looks and jokey charisma more than on his actual physicality. Lee mostly gets relegated to the sidelines as Lundgren beats up legions of Yakuza without putting down his teacup, and before this review goes any further, yes, this is a film about cops and Japanese mob members. Lundgren and Lee play two macho mismatched detectives paired together as some sort of cosmic joke and charged with bringing down criminal activity in Little Tokyo. (As Lee quips, it’s reverse racism, a punchline made funnier by the fact that he’s totally right. At least the film gives the totally awesome Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, here in full Evil Guy mode, the proper respect.)
Naturally, they don’t gel at first, but before long their Buddy Bond forms and Lee is complimenting Lundgren for having the biggest penis he’s ever seen and breaking his police officer code of conduct by immolating the villain’s number one henchman in a vat of beer. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. On their quest toward Ultimate Friendship (and justice!), they mow through the seedy underworld of Yakuza operations, which include decapitating drug addicts after giving them lethal doses of methamphetamines (because the Yakuza are evil!), raping Tie Carrere (because the Yakuza are evil!), and amputating the limbs of stubborn members of rival gangs (because the Yakuza are evil!). There are no lengths Showdown in Little Tokyo doesn’t go to in order to establish how bad these bad guys are. They’re bad.
Thankfully the entire affair lasts for less than
an hour and a half seventy minutes. Mark L. Lester might have figured out the formula for sustaining this sort of nonsense in Commando, which stands head and shoulders above this picture, but here, he doesn’t have Arnold’s brand of star power backing him up. Of course, that explains why Lee gets shortchanged in the action department – he has the range and likability Lundgren lacks – but it doesn’t make the film any less palatable. Lundgren has all Steven Seagal’s ease of killing, Arnold’s size, and none of the je ne sais quoi that makes either of them watchable (though if I’m being honest I actively hate Seagal whereas I just never drank the Lundgren Kool-Aid).
So what do we end up with? A film that’s mostly forgettable but so utterly cheesy, so comically awful, and so mercifully short that sitting through its badness won’t take a year off your life. Showdown in Little Tokyo is one of those productions that film hipsters watch ironically and misguided action aficionados label as “misunderstood”, but the plain truth is that it’s just kind of a low-rent entry in 90’s action cinema canon that deserves exactly the reputation it has earned. (It’s worth noting that the trailer conveys everything you need to know about the film at a fraction of the running time. Take that as you will.) Come for Dolph Lundgren’s abs, stay for Brandon Lee’s sense of humor.