Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
This week we’ll be looking at SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO!
THE STORY: Two mismatched cops (Dolph Lundgren & Brandon Lee) team up to take down a vicious Yakuza drug lord (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).
THE PLAYERS: Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Brandon Lee, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa & Tia Carrere. Directed by Mark L. Lester.
THE HISTORY: SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO barely got a theatrical release. Back in the late eighties, Dolph Lundgren was flying relatively high. ROCKY IV was a hit and propelled him to leading man status in MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, a flop but a reasonably high-grossing one nonetheless, especially on VHS – then in its heyday. He followed it up with RED SCORPION, and then, in 1989, was the first big-screen version of THE PUNISHER, although it sat on the shelf two years before finally getting a direct-to-video release in the U.S.
I don’t know if many people realize that Dolph Lundgren is a chemical engineer. He’s not a dumb blond guy. This guy is smart and he’s a martial artist… We got along well. And Brandon was one of my heroes by association, because of his dad, so we talked about that. He was just the sweetest guy. He had a really wonderful nature. So did Dolph, for that matter. They were both powerful in their way, but we’re not talking about hardcore menacing guys. So, yeah, it was a great experience. I had a lot of fun with those guys. – Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa – Random Roles – Onion AV Club
By this point, Lundgren’s career had cooled, at least as far as big-budget studio films went, and when SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO ran into post-production problems, Warner Bros dumped it. Basically, director Mark L. Lester had the movie taken away from him and chopped down to a shockingly brief seventy-nine minutes by in-house editors, and WB hated the finished cut so much it wound up opening on about 140 screens before being dumped to home video, only grossing $2.2 million. Sounds like a disaster, right?
WHY IT’S GREAT: History resurrected SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO in the strangest, most tragic way. Less than two years after it hit theaters, co-star Brandon Lee, whose star was in ascent following RAPID FIRE, was tragically killed on the set of THE CROW. As happens for a lot of actors who find their careers tragically cut short under strange circumstances, Lee became a cult icon, especially once THE CROW came out (oddly paralleling the life and death of his father, Bruce Lee – although their respective levels of fame were never quite on the same level). When this happened, Brandon Lee’s earlier movies became super popular rentals, and SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO, which was originally seen as a throwaway action movie, became one of our few remaining looks at what Lee as a leading man would have been had his life and career not been cut short.
Brandon Lee, great guy, great actor. We miss him. – Dolph Lundgren – Twitter
Granted, Dolph Lundgren is the lead, but Lee steals the show as his flashy, fish-out-of-water partner. In buddy cop fashion, the two polar opposites (Lundgren – the American cop obsessed with the East, Lee, the half-Asian cop more in tune with L.A valley culture) initially scrap before bonding over their shared love of destruction and violence (given the abbreviated run time, their bromance kicks into gear after only about ten minutes of screen time). Casting the half-Chinese Lee as someone of Japanese descent is culturally insensitive and wouldn’t fly now, but one can’t deny he tackles the role with aplomb. Clearly, he knew the right people would see him in this B-level actioner, and it’s no wonder he went right from this into RAPID FIRE, a bigger-budget solo adventure built around him.
Lee’s performance is really out there, with him ultra-charismatic, handsome and stylish enough to be a leading man, but, he also adds a little something to the part that makes it unique as far as these go – mainly that his character seems to love Lundgren’s, and not in the Riggs-Murtagh way. I mean he REALLY loves him, even commenting, in a line that’s since become immortal, “you have the biggest dick I’ve even seen on a man.” ON A MAN! It’s a great line, and oddly progressive in what was a pretty homophobic era in action movie making. OK, so maybe he’s joking, but at least there’s some ambiguity. Kudos to them for a least going that far. I also love Lundgren’s knowing “thanks, I don’t know what to say” as a response. He knows what he’s packing…
Meanwhile, the seventy-nine minute run time gives this a breakneck pace, with the movie going down pretty easy as there’s a fight/gunfight/car chase at least every five minutes or so. I also have to note that, as a kid, I had the biggest crush on Tia Carrere, whose Dolph’s love interest here, while Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is a menacing villain.
BEST SCENE: I love a good “meet cute” in my eighties action movies, and this is a pretty good one. Dolph’s getting coffee and foils a robbery, just as his new partner comes walking by and mistakes him for a criminal. Hell, it worked for LETHAL WEAPON. Rather than waste any time actually having them get to know each other, as soon as they’re introduced they have to dodge bullets. Narrative economy – thy name is SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO.
SEE IT: Always a popular catalogue title, SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO is available on Blu-ray, DVD (make sure not to buy the pan & scan version) and streaming.
PARTING SHOT: Please understand that, to a degree, my love of SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO is tongue-in-cheek. It’s not really a good movie per se, but damn if it’s not a fun one. Truth be told, I’d rather watch a fun B-level actioner from the era starring cool guys like Lundgren and Lee than a Steven Seagal movie, whose work is nearly unwatchable after we all learned what a prick he seemingly is. I enjoy this one and re-visiting it is always a blast, even if you’ll wind up bummed that Brandon Lee never lived to achieve the peak movie stardom he deserved.