Monday, February 27, 2012

Heavy Action: Showdown in Little Tokyo / Rapid Fire

by Patrick Bromley
This week's Heavy Action takes a look at an action star taken from us far too young: one Brandon Lee, son of Bruce, who was killed in a freak accident during the filming of his 1994 movie The Crow. He could have been one of the greats. To us fans of Rapid Fire, he still is.

Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991)

There's a kind of biographical trajectory to Brandon Lee's three major American studio movies (the two discussed here and, of course, The Crow, to which the biographical connections are fairly obvious). In Showdown, the first of the three, he's Johnny Murata, a young cop with something to prove, teamed up with a partner (Swedish hulk Dolph Lundgren) who's bigger (literally and figuratively) and more established in their chosen profession. Substitute police work for an acting career and you might as well be talking about Lee himself.

If you want to take the analogy even further, Lee's character is a guy drifting between two cultures -- he's of Asian descent but highly Americanized, working in "Little Tokyo" but not particularly fond of Japanese culture. The actual Lee, born half Chinese and half Caucasian, was similarly drifting between two film cultures: he had made one Hong Kong action movie called Legacy of Rage and one American movie, Laser Mission, a super low-budget actioner from 1989. Next came Showdown, an American production taking place entirely in an Asian district of Los Angeles. If Murata was experiencing a kind of crisis of culture, it couldn't have been too much of a stretch for Lee to play.
There's not much of a plot to speak of in the movie: detectives Kenner (Lundgren) and Murata are partnered up to bring down a drug ring run by yakuza gangster Yoshida (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa of Mortal Kombat fame) -- who just happens to be the same bad guy that killed Kenner's parents years ago in Japan. Scenes of exposition are barely strung together in favor of almost wall-to-wall action: the partners are attacked by Yoshida's men, then they go find some bad guys and fuck them up. Repeat.

Lee is pretty terrific in Showdown, a buddy cop movie that missed the curve on the genre by a couple of years. It's obviously Dolph Lundgren's movie, but Lee steals every scene he's in by being charming and funny and never pushing a moment -- he's a born movie star. And though it's yet another entry into the already overcrowded buddy cop genre, there are some small tweaks that make it more bearable than several of its contemporaries. The major difference between Showdown and most other buddy cop movies is that the two heroes like each other and get along pretty much right way; it doesn't take two or three sequels before they learn to work together. They hit it off and are friendly almost from out the outset (once they get past meeting by drawing their guns on one another), and there's a kind of relief when the filmmakers don't feel the need to pile on the additional tension of the constant bickering that passes for comedy in these kinds of movies.

Aside from the craziness of the violence and the sheer amount of action in the movie, it's really Lee that makes it watchable. These were still the early days of Dolph Lundgren attempting to be a legitimate action hero, but it wasn't working yet: he's stiff and kind of boring, and his sheer size makes him look strange on screen in comparison to the other actors. It's also frustrating that we still couldn't get an American action movie about Asians or Asian culture that didn't require a white actor to be our "guide," whether it's Black Rain or Rising Sun or whatever. At least, to the credit of Showdown in Little Tokyo, Dolph isn't required to be the audience proxy (if anything, that's Brandon Lee's job). It's established early on that Kenner was raised in Japan and has pretty much been immersed in Japanese culture his entire life, so the movie doesn't concern itself with walking the audience through this foreign "world" -- it's just a forgone conclusion that every character already lives there, and it's up to us to catch up.

The movie does fall prey to having Kenner be not just a white guy acting as an honorary Asian, but becoming the BEST Asian (like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai; see also: Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves or Sam Worthington in Avatar, but substitute Native Americans and blue cat aliens) to the point where he spends the final battle dressed in a gi and hachimaki. Meanwhile, Brandon Lee -- who is actually Asian -- spends the movie dressed like Zack Morris going to that after-hours club when he dates that college chick. It just doesn't seem fair.

Showdown in Little Tokyo is the second best-known movie to be directed by Mark L. Lester, whose most significant credit is probably still Commando. This one has the same kind of mean-spirited violence as the Schwarzenegger classic (it actually needed to be edited down slightly to avoid an NC-17 rating -- that's how fucking hardcore it is): a pretty blonde woman is drugged up, strips naked and is beheaded with a sword by Yoshida as all of his goons look on. A young Tia Carerre, playing a lounge singer who gets mixed up in everything, is raped by Yoshida, but hours later is climbing into a hot tub to fuck Dolph Lundgren (a task that's ultimately left up to her very obvious body double in one of the worst, most pointless sex scenes in action movie history). There's a huge brawl in a bathhouse in which we get to see a knife enter the bare stomach of a big sumo-looking motherfucker in close-up. And, of course, there is the big bad guy death, which is one of the most ridiculous and entertaining of its kind.

But don't take my word for it. Check out this highlight reel, which includes several of the movie's more hilariously over-the-top moments, including Dolph Lundgren jumping a moving car, a petty criminal breaking his own neck, Lundgren's ridiculous outfit and, of course, the amazing death scene of the big bad guy. SPOILERS, I guess:
Rapid Fire (1992)

Rapid Fire is easily Brandon Lee's best movie. He gets to carry it by himself without being saddled by any of the baggage brought on by an existing property. His fight choreography is at its best. He gets a bunch of small moments that round out the character and make him interesting instead of just being another no-nonsense badass or wisecracking smart aleck. Mostly, though, it's the autobiographical side of the movie that makes it resonate even 20 years after its release.

See, in Rapid Fire, Lee is playing a guy whose father is something of a legend. Everywhere he goes, people know all about his father and want him to speak and tell stories about his father -- the same father who lived a life defined by violence, and who suffered a tragic, early death. Jake Lo is attempting to come to terms with his father's legacy and deciding what path his life his going to follow, whether he'll follow in the old man's footsteps or if he'll carve out his own place in the world. SOUND FAMILIAR? The whole movie is like a commentary on Brandon Lee's career.
Lee plays Jake Lo, a Los Angeles art student trying to repress the memory of seeing his father killed at Tianamen Square. He's tricked into attending a fundraiser being held by some political activists on campus (including their ringleader, Harry Ioki), and, while there, witnesses a mob boss killing an associate of Chinese drug lord Tau (Tzi Ma). Naturally, the mob boss orders a hit on Jake, so he's snatched up by the feds and shipped off to Chicago so that he can testify against the mafia guy. There, he hooks up with hard-drinking, excellently-named cop Mace Ryan (played by the slightly more excellently named Powers Booth) and pretty lady officer Karla Withers (Kate Hodge), who have to spend the next several days trying to keep Jake alive. Also, there is some rapid fire. Mostly bullets, not dialogue.

If Showdown in Little Tokyo presented Brandon Lee as a guy trying to make his bones as an action hero, Rapid Fire serves up a fully-formed movie star who's really got the goods. He's no longer playing He-Man's sidekick; now he's the lead, and he's good at it. His acting isn't the best, but neither is Stallone's or Schwarzenegger's or Van Damme's or Seagal's or even Bruce Lee's. And he's smart enough to take advantage of all these throwaway character beats so that they make him more well-rounded and believable. After a girl asks him out on a date, he runs ahead of her a little bit to open the door for her. A gentleman. The first time he stabs a guy in the chest, he looks genuinely shaken and upset by it. A gentleman. He has this really long, intense fight, and at the end of it takes a big breath, like he just realized how fucking worn out it made him. He's not superhuman, even though he beats ass like he might be.

The fighting in the movie is pretty awesome -- it's not Bruce Lee good, but it's not trying to be, either. Jake Lo is more from the John McLane school of action hero; he doesn't necessarily want to fight, but he just so happens to be fucking good at it. Lee got to show off some of his skills in Showdown, but he still seemed like Bruce Lee's kid trying to learn how to fight because that was the family business. In The Crow, he doesn't really get to do any fighting at all. That's why Rapid Fire is still the purest expression of him as a movie star, like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. This is how we should remember him.

Like most action movies of the period, Rapid Fire is not without some significant problems. Though less uncomfortable than the one in Showdown in Little Tokyo, it does have a pretty terrible and misplaced love scene (not helped by the fact that its accompanied to a hair metal song ironically titled "Can't Find My Way"). The plotting doesn't always make sense, beginning with the basic conceit of the movie, which is that this mob guy wants Jake killed because he witnessed a murder, even though immediately after that his henchmen started killing people left and right with dozens of witnesses standing around. The last act of the movie suffers somewhat because it gets rid of all the bad guys except the least interesting, least physically threatening villain in the movie. We never even get to see the guy be all that bad. He's just in charge. Compare that to Flawless Victory beheading the hot blonde girl in Showdown in Little Tokyo and I think you'll see where I'm coming from. Still, there's a great bit of misdirection when he finally gets it, and it's just another of those little touches that makes Rapid Fire better than the forgettable, generic '90s action movie you think it is.

Dwight H. Little is a really underrated director (as well as being yet another journeyman action director who uses his middle initial, a club that also includes Sidney J. Furie, Mark L. Lester and Craig R. Baxley), having previously made both Marked for Death, one of Steven Seagal's best movies, and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, the best of all the Halloween sequels. He does his usual solid work on Rapid Fire -- never overly stylish, but shooting the action in longer, uncut takes and wider shots (often showing the star from head to foot in the frame) so that we can see that it is, in fact, Lee doing all this amazing stuff and not a stunt double. Plus, he makes good use of the Chicago locations (the Fireside Bowl plays a major role), like in one shot where Lee and some FBI agents walk into a house and the camera keeps craning up to catch an L train just as it arrives. Or another scene where a guy gets hit by an L train. What I'm saying is that there's a lot of L train material in Rapid Fire.

Generic title aside, this is one of my favorite action movies of the '90s. You can keep The Crow; it's Rapid Fire that makes me weep for the loss of Brandon Lee.

Got a movie you'd like to see included in a future installment of Heavy Action? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. Yay, I was just talking about Kate Hodge last week in the 'Bad TV shows inspired by movies' column. She's just in a supporting role in "Rapid Fire" (aka the Brandon Lee Show) but I'm glad Kate got work right after "She-Wolf of London" flamed out. Gives me another excuse to shout it outloud (and proud): I LOVE THE "SHE-WOLF OF LONDON" TV SHOW (1990-91). :-)

    I only saw "Rapid Fire" once and it was a pretty neat and well-made action vehicle that actually played in theaters (I remember the TV commercials) because it was a 20th Century Fox release. It did a little bit more money than the usual direct-to-video action crap plus it set Brandon up for bigger things like "The Crow" lead. If he hadn't passed away so young I'm pretty sure Brandon would have done a few more kick-ass action movies to establish himself and then would have tried to turn more legit with a comedy or a romantic drama vehicle (ala Tatum Channing in "The Vow"). Brandon was too good-looking and charismatic a dude to wind up stuck in action movies his whole life (like Jason Stratham), and "The Crow" was his first step into bonafide superstardom. "Rapid Fire" is no "Rebel Without A Cause" though, and "The Crow" is no "Dark Knight."

    "Showdown in Little Tokyo" is just nuts with the depravity and the violence though. It was on Cinemax and HBO ALL THE TIME when I was going to college (early 90's), but it's one of my least favorite of the direct-to-video action flicks because it's rather humorless and takes itself way too seriously. Brandon actually is somewhat a non-comic relief for viewers by virtue that the bad guys are so evil (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa has only two expressions: over-the-top and over-the-rainbow) and Dolph is so stone-faced unemotional he makes for an unrelatable hero (the bane of his career as a direct-to-video action star). Lee stands out by virtue he's the closest thing to a likable human being in the movie, one that just happens to be naturally gifted at kicking ass and looking good on-camera while doing it.

    Since you're dipping your toes into direct-to-video action flicks Patrick, may I make some suggestions? The "China O'Brien" flicks starring Cynthia Rothrock are a fun time (not to mention they had permanent playback on the premium channels) because, while Rothrock was pretty kick-ass a martial artist at a time when few women (let alone white women) could be action stars, you can clearly see that she's not as talented at the kick-ass thing as her counterparts. But damn it, the story/direction dictates that she's an ass-kicking machine (and that the white hero should win) so China always came out ahead.

    Not as polished as "China O'Brien" but a lot of fun too are the Don 'The Dragon' Wilson's "Cyber-Tracker" movies, in which the rather-short but well-built former martial artist plays an indestructible ass-kicking secret agent that has Terminator-like cyborgs on his tail. I remember me and a friend laughing like idiots at a shoot-out sequence early during "Cyber-Tracker 2" in which the exact same shot of goons firing shotguns at an army of cyborgs gets repeated two or three times in a row (with a different target in-between but clearly the same shot of people firing) and it... just... keeps... getting... funnier.

    There's also of course the "Cyborg" (1989) and "Cyborg 2" (1993) movies, which are less action-packed but one features young Jean-Claude Van Damme in an early leading role (first "Cyborg") and another has 18-year old Angelina Jolie having sex with Elias Koteas ("Cyborg 2"). Man, Trimark Pictures ruled the direct-to-video 1990's scene (like Weinstein does now with Oscar-bait winners).

  2. I am ashamed that I've seen neither of these, yet was at prime age when these came out and therefore have no fucking good excuse. I will remedy this, I solemnly swear on Dolph Lundgren's master's degree in chemical engineering.

    *heads to Amazon*

    1. Okay, I've got both of them on the way. This column has me really excited to check them both out. F This Movie, you've done it again. You take something that I know just enough about to give a nod of recognition, and then you take me to school and make me feel like I've missed something great. I can't wait to watch these.

    2. Awesome. Hope you aren't disappointed. Showdown in Little Tokyo is ridiculous but fun in that '90s action movie way; Rapid Fire is kind of legitimately good, I think. Make sure to let us know what you think when you're able to watch them.

    3. I'll definitely let you know what I think about them when I check them out. And I don't think I'll be disappointed. I'm not looking for Shakespeare or the lost Fellini film, just a fun movie with cool action. I'm glad you're taking it seriously, as a lot of people act like these kinds of movies cause cancer. I mean, I can't prove that they don't, but I don't THINK they do. Or maybe the do? Hoooo, man, do you think these movies cause cancer? Touch this spot on my balls, does that feel like a lump? Uh-oh.

  3. That was a great read Patrick. It’s brilliant to see someone review stuff like this and not just resort to doing it in an ironic way.

    I’m glad to see Showdown in Little Tokyo get the Heavy Action treatment after asking for it last week. I posted my thoughts on it last time. You’re spot on about Lee stealing the film right out from under Dolph and the body double is amazing, her hair is so different it’s hilarious.

    I caught Rapid Fire for the first time in years the other week and loved it. It really is a little gem of an action flick. The fight scene in the kitchen is great; I loved it when Brandon Lee kept kicking the door into that guys face every time he tried to come in.He really could have been something special.

    As for recommendations for future columns, some mark Dacascos reviews would be great. Maybe Drive or The Base. Or Avenging Force staring Michael Dudikoff.

  4. Thanks, Stuart. I really appreciate that. I'm trying to approach these seriously, because I really do love the genre, so it means a lot to me that you took notice.

    Glad to hear someone else digs Rapid Fire as much as I do. I forgot how good it is until I rewatched it for the column.

    I don't think I've ever seen a Mark Dacascos movie (besides Brotherhood of the Wolf). Not even Double Dragon! I will try to remedy this ASAP. Thanks for the suggestions, and thanks for reading.

  5. I hope Mark Dacascos' films still hold up. I haven’t actually seen any of them in years but I remember that when I did some martial arts years ago his stuff was really popular with other people in the classes and I enjoyed them a lot at the time too.

  6. I'd like to second the love for Mark Dacascos. Drive was a parricularly fun movie (pairing him with Kadeem Hardison, making it 90s DTV Action: The Motion Picture). Also, Only The Strong is a legitimately fun movie centered around showcasing Capoeira, a Brazilian mix of dance and jiu-jitsu. You will never get the song that they chant throughout the fights out of your head, and the villain (who looks disconcertingly like a steroidal Adrian Paul in a vajazzled vest and purple pants) has possibly the greatest accent ever commmited to film.

    To Heath Holland, your cancer comment made me shoot Yoo-Hoo out of my nose, which is doubly impressive as I haven't had a Yoo-Hoo in approximately 12 years.

  7. I am glad that I am not the only one who feels the same about Rapid Fire. It's one awesome action flick which I think only scratched the surface of what Brandon Lee was capable of. Like you I think he stole the show in Showdown in Little Tokyo. I always had problems with gwailo / gaijin Dolph supposedly knowing more about Japanese culture than someone from that culture even if he was born in America. But it's nothing compared to the outrage I felt for Brandon Lee being a secondary character. Although it is hard to shake the big time studios and their old thoughts about non white ethnicities not being able to draw an audience even if there is more than enough proof that they are perfectly capable. I mean Jackie Chan is a huge star everywhere in the world. But did he get the chance to make the movies we love him for? No! They had to team him up with Chris Tucker. The whole Rush Hour franchise was sub par compared to Jackie's Hong Kong movies. (At least Jackie Chan treated his Western colleagues John Cusak and Adrien Brody with much more respect in Dragon Blade which I can recommend BTW.) They did the same with Sammo Hung and his tv show. Which was almost like the television version of Rush Hour. There are many more examples of this but it will take a long time for Hollywood to change. Although I am glad that sites like Youtube exists where everyone no matter where they come from are able to shine as they deserve. Back to Rapid Fire. The film still holds up today and really makes me miss these kinds of movies.