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 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.
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.
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