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Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Brandon Lee, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Tia Carrere, Renee Griffin

Written By: Stephen Glantz, Caliope Bradstreet Directed By: Mark L. Lester

The Short Version

Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee are buddy cops who kick ass.

Showdown in Little Tokyo is beyond preposterous, but who cares?

Besides, you can’t go wrong with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as the bad guy.

The fights rock, the jokes are funny, and the pace is quick.

If you love Golden Age action, you’ll love Showdown in Little Tokyo.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


You can pretend they’re Spring Rolls when your hoity-toity friends stare at your plate, and then defiantly enjoy the yummy, dripping cheese when you bite into them.

Pairs Well With...


“And when we’re done, we’re gonna go eat fish off those naked chicks!”

“Five grand on the new guy!”

“It’s a good bet!”

All right, Golden Age action fans, are you ready for some fun?

And by “fun,” I mean “a preposterous, completely over the top action flick that’s loaded with swords, stereotypes, occasionally topless women, and a whole lot of tattooed guys with diaper-wrap loincloths.”

You are ready?  Awesome!  Welcome to the wonderful world of Showdown in Little Tokyo!

Our story takes place in – surprise – the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles.  Up to this point, the illegal activity has been capably handled by local talent, but now, a Yakuza clan called the Iron Claw has decided to muscle in from the Old Country to show everyone how it’s done.  They also look forward to introducing Americans to a new form of crack that makes the regular stuff seem like pop rocks.

But the most popular cop in the neighborhood, Sgt. Kenner (Dolph Lundgren, Johnny Mnemonic), isn’t about to let that happen.  With the help of his newly assigned pretty boy partner, Johnny (Brandon Lee, The Crow), he intends to kick every Yakuza ass he sees until the bad guys get the message and leave Little Tokyo alone.  And hey, if he can avenge the deaths of his parents while he’s at it, so much the better…

Sounds like a party, right?  Hell, yeah!  All that’s missing are the snacks and the beer!  And while you’re waiting for those to show up, here’s a quick guide that’ll help you figure out what to look for (and what not to) once the time comes to press “play.”

Don’t look for political correctness of any kind; one smudge on Golden Age movies is that within them, no such thing exists, nor do most of its cousins.  We’re talking action in 1991: stereotypes abound, and the female lead is little more than a plot device/window dressing.  If you can’t look past these things (and perhaps a few others) for the sake of a chop socky/bang bang flick… you probably shouldn’t bother with any chop socky/bang bang flicks.  Meanwhile, for the rest of us…

Don’t look for anything remarkably original.  Instead, look for the “mismatched buddy cop” formula made popular by Lethal Weapon getting mashed up with the “Japanese chop socky hits the streets” thing that Steven Seagal brought to the action forefront in Above the Law.  There should not be a single thing about the plot of Showdown in Little Tokyo that surprises you… and that’s perfectly okay.  These flicks are all about the formula, anyway; a super complex plot would only get in the way of all of the flying fists and one liners.  It’s crafted intelligently enough to make sense on a single pass, and that’s all one can legitimately ask for here.  Again, this is a chop socky/bang bang flick: enjoy it for what it’s meant to be.

Do look for Dolph Lundgren in prime form.  Physically, he looks to be in the best shape he’d ever be, which comes in handy whenever it’s time for him to kick ass.  (And hey, for those interested, he also pulls a Van Damme and flashes a butt shot.)  However, what strikes me the most about Dolph during the course of Showdown in Little Tokyo is that it looks like he’s having a blast with the role.  Though there are a couple of deeper moments for him to sink his teeth into as an actor (which he does with much greater skill than most would like to give him credit for), overall, the part of Kenner allows him to just let go, ride the formula, and enjoy himself, and that sense of “having fun with it” gets transmitted to the audience loud and clear.  When the lead man is having fun, so are the rest of us.

Do listen for Dolph’s Swedish accent to drop in from time to time.

Do take advantage one of the too-few opportunities to watch Brandon Lee in action.  Even in this film, which relegates him to the “pretty boy supporting banana” role, it’s plain to see that the guy’s got major star power and is, without question, lead action hero material.  However, if Brandon Lee was bothered by being Dolph Lundgren’s sidekick, he certainly doesn’t show it; quite the contrary.  Just like Dolph, he appears to be having a blast with the role, even – indeed especially – when that role becomes completely ridiculous.  He’s got great comic timing, charisma to spare, and – oh yes – unquestionable fighting skills.

Do enjoy the chemistry between the two buddy cops.  Lundgren and Lee make a great duo, and I’m firmly convinced that if the studio hadn’t deliberately sabotaged Showdown in Little Tokyo by giving it an insanely limited theatrical release (just 140 screens) before shunting it straight down to Home Video Hell, this could have been the start of a franchise a-la the Lethal Weapon series.  It’s certainly good enough, especially given the climate of the time, and it deserved the chance to succeed, but alas…

Do appreciate the fact that someone decided to give Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat) a call, because he is the perfect choice to play this movie’s Yakuza badass.  Tagawa has a dramatic presence that allows him to step in front of the camera and be immediately credible as “the man in charge,” and the over-the-top chops to be convincing as an Oyabun who can be offered a failed underling’s sliced-off finger and say “Is that all?”  And hey, bonus: unlike so many other leading villains in North American martial arts action movies, he can actually sell a fight scene and make the climactic duel look good.

Do feel free to completely drain whatever’s left of your first or second beer in a single swig when you see what his character does with the poor blonde lady.  The word you’re looking for is “daaaaaamn.”

Don’t expect Tia Carrere (Rising Sun) to kick much ass in this flick; her character’s pretty much of a doormat.  And for those who remember her delivering a pretty rockin’ take on “Ballroom Blitz” for Wayne’s World, don’t expect her to bring nearly the same amount of ‘oomph’ to “Slow Hand” in Showdown in Little Tokyo.

Don’t be fooled for a second by Carrere’s painfully obvious body double during her character’s nude scenes.  (An actress with the same hairstyle would have made for a good start.)

Do note that lots of other women felt no need at all to ask for body doubles, including the poor blonde lady mentioned earlier.  (And hey, it just wouldn’t be a heavily stereotyped Japanese nightclub or bath house without random toplessness or, say, a couple of naked chicks making themselves useful as human sushi tables.)

Do realize, guys, that you will pay for that female nudity with a bathhouse full of heavily tattooed men (many of whom are not exactly in GQ shape) wearing nothing but diaper-wrapped loincloths… who then proceed to engage in an extensive fight sequence while still clad in only said loincloths.

Do enjoy that fight sequence, and all the rest of them, because they rock from first to last.  Whether the moment’s about swordplay, gunplay, harsh kicks, or fists of fury, everything is showcased wonderfully, and since Showdown in Little Tokyo was made before the wire-and-CG explosion, what you see is what you get.  I find it rather fun that in a movie that’s otherwise utterly preposterous and over the top, the fights are probably the most realistic parts of the entire flick.  And did I mention that Dolph is in top form and Brandon Lee is, well, Brandon Lee?  Good; I’m mentioning it again!

Don’t worry, they didn’t forget to throw in a quick training montage; it just doesn’t happen until really late in the movie.

Do enjoy the flick’s little homage to Dirty Harry Callahan in the form of Dolph dispatching a cadre of bad guys without letting go of his still-full teacup, which brings to mind Mr. Eastwood munching his hot dog while taking out some hooligans back in the day.  Nice touch.

Do also get a kick out of the dialogue, which is, frankly, completely absurd more often than not.  The Golden Age of Action movies is known just as much for its silly exchanges and smartass one-liners as it is for its ass kicking, and Showdown in Little Tokyo hits heavily on the humor meter.  Though everyone remembers Brandon Lee telling Dolph “You have the biggest dick I’ve ever seen,” his best dialogue by far involves his special take on reading a certain individual his Miranda Rights.  As for the biggest groaner, that easily has to go to Tia Carrere… I’ll just tell you that she’s horizontal when she says it, and leave it at that.  Will this movie ever win a “Best Screenplay” award?  Not a chance.  But it’s snickeringly quotable as hell. 

And that note, I think, brings us full circle.  When it comes to watching Showdown in Little Tokyo, it really is all about having fun.  Any drama here is off the shelf, and the story’s built over a frame made of balsa wood, but none of that matters.  Showdown in Little Tokyo excels at being exactly what it’s supposed to be: an hour and a half action party with lots of cool fight scenes and plenty of barroom quality humor.  It’s the Golden Age of Action Movies in a nutshell, and that, my friends, is good enough for me.

Bottom line, if you’re in the mood for some classic era action fun, Showdown in Little Tokyo is a gem that’s overlooked far too often.  Check it out; it’s worth your time.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2012

This review is for my friend and former partner in crime, Kenner (yes, that's his actual name), who has been trying to get me to watch this movie for over ten years. You were right, man.

More From The Bar! | Universal Soldier | Bloodsport | Hard to Kill |

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