Showdown in Little Tokyo Blu-ray Review: The Ultimate Guilty Pleasure of the ’90s

In Hollywood, all it takes is one strike before you’re tossed out of the game. And it usually doesn’t actually have to be your own fault. Just ask Mark L. Lester, the man who brought us several ’80s classics including the cult classic Firestarter, the guilty pleasure Armed and Dangerous, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s guilty pleasure of a cult classic, Commando. The latter film almost seemed to pave the way for Lester’s next foray into the world of outrageous violent action films filled to the brim with snappy lines most fifth graders cringe with disbelief: the almost legendary 1991 motion picture Showdown in Little Tokyo – the very movie that resulted in a one-time rising director’s unintended fall from grace.

Initially shot in less than two months at the beginning of ’91, Showdown in Little Tokyo is best viewed as an urban legend for filmmakers; a stern warning from parental figures in the biz given to little players as they are tucked into their beds at night (“Pray it doesn’t happen to you!”). And one simple viewing of Showdown in Little Tokyo without the assistance of any mind-altering (or numbing) substances will instantly bring the tale’s many, many flaws to light. After the initial rough cut of the movie – an appallingly garish journey into the early ’90s where a seasoned Dolph Lundgren is joined by a plain-as-an-unsalted-Saltine Brandon Lee in a racist Hollywood war against Asian Americans – failed to make the grade with Warner Bros. executives, the project was passed onto (at least) two editors in an effort to “save” it.

Of course, anyone who has ever seen the thumb scene from Herschell Gordon Lewis’ immortal Two-Thousand Maniacs knows full well that continuing to cut something up really isn’t going to make it whole again. In fact, I have to wonder if that particular moment from the 1963 gore flick was used as an editorial guide from the brave souls who desperately risked their pensions trying to make something absolutely hideous into just… “something.” The end result – a hilariously awful and incoherent tale with narrative holes wider than the universe itself – has, needless to say, gone on to become a twisted masterpiece in the eyes of any true child of the ’90s. So much so, that the source of Mark L. Lester’s many nightmares today has received a new High-Definition release on Blu-ray courtesy the sadistic men and womenfolk at the Warner Archive Collection.

It was a time when the garish colors and styles of early ’90s fashions roamed the Earth, Asian-Americans were finally allowed to play Asian-Americans in movies (provided they were all cast as bad guys, that is), and the non-talents of Tia Carrere were taken seriously. Much as the aforementioned actress would assault the ears of musically-inclined viewers the following year in Wayne’s World (a movie that seems like a genuinely well-crafted moviegoing experience compared to Showdown in Little Tokyo), Tia sings in this one, too. Fortunately, we can at least thank one of the movie’s many editors for excising most of that bit of useless fluff from this, an entire film comprised of nothing but useless fluff.

Ah, but what great fluff it is! Take the cheesy opening ,wherein one-man army Dolph Lundgren literally jumps right into the middle of an underground boxing match and starts a war with Japanese gangsters, which ends with him jumping up and over a speeding (and very long) classic automobile when he runs out of bullets. Or that final, unbelievable confrontation between Dolph and villain Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in the streets of Little Tokyo during a parade, culminating in one of the most laughable deaths ever committed to film. Bullets that go clear through torsos leave no exit wounds. Minor characters are killed in close-up shots before being noticeably still alive and shootin’ in the next (long) shot. A huge – and I mean huge – chunk of story is trimmed from the moment Tagawa first woos Carrere; only to be brutally raping her at his home the next!

Mr. Tagawa also gets one of the maligned movie’s most memorable moments, where he makes love to a crack-smoking stripper (busty Renee Griffin/Allman) in a g-string before slicing her head off with a samurai sword. In fact, his villainous heavily-tatted baddie has created a super form of crystal meth (it’s really not that new of a drug, kids, sorry) that he is shipping out to various gangsters of California via a brewery. Frankly, I have to wonder if brews and meth contributed to some of Showdown in Little Tokyo‘s classic dialogue, including the crowning comment where Brandon Lee’s so-paint-by-numbers-straight-that-he’s-gay character comments on Dolph’s manhood: “You have the biggest dick I’ve ever seen on a man!” Because that’s something guys say to each other.

If you’re in the dark about that line – and you should be – it had originally concluded with “white man,” but studio executives somehow thought that that would result in cries of racism from viewers. The fact that all of the “Asian-looking” Asian actors in the film are bloodthirsty murderous rapists and the two non-Asian-looking actors with a bit of Asian ancestry in them are cast as good guys certainly wouldn’t offend anyone. Granted, it was all for moot: by the time Showdown in Little Tokyo had been through its various showdowns with editors in little booths (a process that started as early as the writing phase, with an unconfirmed number of script doctors being brought in to spruce things up) was finished, it was a lost cause. An extremely limited theatrical run soon gave birth to a home video debut and a heap of negative reviews by many a confused critic.

Interestingly, the movie became popular a few years later once Brandon Lee’s tragic death during the filming of The Crow (by which time he had learned to act – an art he had clearly not mastered here, although that only adds to the fun in the long run). If only Warner had shelved the film in the first place, they may have had a potential box-office winner on their hands. You know, just like Wagons East! and Canadian Bacon were well after John Candy had passed away. Alas, nothing could ever truly save Showdown in Little Tokyo from its own weird sense of self-worth: it was undoubtedly a bad idea from the very start, and – for whatever reasons they had for actually greenlighting this one – nobody had enough sense to bury the concept of it away somewhere. Of course, were it made some twenty years later, Showdown in Little Tokyo would have unquestionably given Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain a run for its ill-gotten monies.

Determined to prove that old idiom about polishing up a deposit of fecal matter wrong (on many levels), the Warner Archive Collection has upgraded the decades-old Standard-Definition open matte DVD available here in the US with a shiny new widescreen Blu-ray version. Why? Hell, I don’t know, kids. I really don’t. But it’s wonderful to see this glorious piece of shit get a new life just the same. The presentation looks beautiful in comparison, too! Granted, this was a low-budget product of the early ’90s, so don’t expect the HD crispy clarity you’re spoiled with from newer digitally-shot films. One minor downside here that I really noted was the fact that this was the R-Rated home video cut of the film (there is a longer theatrical edit available elsewhere in the world, though the alternate footage has never seen the light of day that I’m aware of).

A major downside to the presentation is the omission of the movie’s original burned-in subtitles for certain portions of the film, such as when someone speaks Japanese, or a focusing location is supposed to appear on-screen (e.g. “Los Angeles. Tuesday, 2PM”). Presumably tossed out during the restoration process (something MGM was constantly accidentally doing when DVDs first started coming out), they have been replaced with ugly video-generated subtitles housed on a default track. The release also features a “regular” subtitle track, and the movie’s original theatrical trailer (for the great big launch that never happened) is included as a bonus item. Then again, when you’re talking about a movie wherein the lead character sums up the situation with “We’re so far outside on this one, it’s not even funny” (oh, but it is, Dolph, it is), getting something like this on Blu-ray in the first place is a bonus unto itself.

Yeah, you bet your ass I’m recommending this one. And I’m going to extra mile to commend the Warner Archive Collection for releasing this on Blu-ray. Whoever made the decision to release this one truly has the biggest balls I’ll ever see on a man.

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Luigi Bastardo

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