Showdown in Little Tokyo

It’s popular in modern film criticism, both professional and amateur, to look back with a knowing snicker at what we perceive to be the profoundly obvious homoeroticism present in many — if not most — of the beefy, oiled up action films of the 1980s. It’s also popular to wonder whether all this musclebound gay subtext is actually there, or whether we, from our perch in the 21st century, simply inject it in ourselves. The answer of course, is probably yes, we do, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. And thank goodness, because if it wasn’t there, queer cinema would be stuck with a really boring filmography.

I have complained many times in the past — possibly even on this site somewhere — that I feel the gay community is ill served by the weak, melodramatic movies that are foisted upon it in the name of “queer cinema.” The vast majority of them seem to be nothing but maudlin meditations on the turmoil of middle-aged white guys in sweaters coming to terms with their homosexuality amidst the backdrop of well-appointed New York coffee shops. Ugh. How dreary. Surely there are those in the gay community — I know you are there because we write each other debating who was the bigger hunk, Kirk Morris or Reg Lewis — who would happily dispense with the turgid drama in favor of movies full of gay men blowing shit up and jumping motorcycles through windows. And yet, year after year, we suffer a dearth of gay action films, which seems so doubly strange given how homoerotic the entire action genre usually is. Every now and then, though, something slips through the cracks, and anyone who wants less soul searching, more kungfu, from their gay cinema gets a treat.

Like most action movies, Showdown in Little Tokyo doesn’t bill itself as a gay action film. And like most action movies, that doesn’t do much to disarm just how amazing queer it is. I mean, we’re talking about a movie where a muscular blonde guy spends entire scenes clad in nothing but black leather hot pants and men compliment each other on the exquisiteness of their dicks. This movie is like one step away from being a Tom of Finland adaptation. The only thing preventing it from being one is the lack of Aviator sunglasses. And for its willingness to take the homoerotic nature of the action genre and elevate it to the level of drag queen show camp, I think we all owe Showdown in Little Tokyo a tremendous debt of gratitude. This isn’t a case of a film being infused with a gay subtext. This is gay uber-text, written in fifty-point font on every page. Heck, this movie’s plot even revolves around meth! Finally, the gay community has something they can watch besides another movie in which a married man grapples with homosexual tendencies while his family is vacationing in their rural Maine holiday cabin, all set to winsome piano music.

This treasure trove of greased-up, stripped-down manliness also includes a wealth of other 80s action film staples (never mind that it came out in 1991): the wise-cracking cop paired up with the serious cop, the notion that America was one day away from being owned by inscrutable Japanese businessmen, every single thing ever exploding, criminal meetings that take place in strip clubs, fights and shootouts in warehouses, neon, baggy square-shouldered suits and skinny ties, and shirts so garish that they are actually considered war crimes in most of the civilized world. It may very well be the ultimate buddy-cop film of the era. It’s also the sort of movie that I would have sneered at in 1991. I was a self-righteous college sophomore then and newly high on my discovery of Hong Kong action films. Why would I dirty myself with some crappy American action film? They are so inferior! And in some ways, I still feel I was justified — the action setpieces and stuntwork in the Hong Kong films of that era remain unsurpassed by anything done by any country before, during, or after (with the possible exception of some of the work being done in Thailand these days, but those films are far too few and lack the consistency of Hong Kong in its glory days).

As I got older, however, I realized that most of my judgment had been misguided. For starters, while a lot of those old Hong Kong films had stupendous stuntwork and fight scenes, they were otherwise pretty terrible movies, full of shoddy writing, awkward editing outside of the fight scenes, bad acting, and painful comedy. I was able to gloss over those short comings because those were not the things I wanted from those movies. And one day I realized that I should try cutting the same slack to American action films that I’d been cutting to Hong Kong all those years. Sure, the stunts and fights weren’t on the level of Project A. But if I watched a movie like, say, Showdown in Little Tokyo knowing that I wasn’t getting great fight scenes a la Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, then I could appreciate what the films did offer, even if that appreciation sometimes came with tongue a bit in cheek. So now, stripped of my bias, I have to say that Showdown in Little Tokyo entertained me to no end, and not just because it’s positively dripping with oiled pecs homoeroticism. It’s a lumbering, good-natured beefcake of a film that offers you a different type of entertainment than you get from Hong Kong.

Dolph and his baggy, pleated, high-waisted khakis star as Sgt. Chris Kenner, the proverbial cop on the edge™ who plays by his own rules™. He’s also a Japanophile, which is communicated in the time honored method of having him wear a leather jacket with a dragon on the back. Also, even though he’s a huge blonde guy, he likes tea, because that’s hilarious. When first we meet him, he seems to be taking it upon himself to dismantle the entire Asian criminal underworld of Los Angeles using the time honored method of busting into an underground club by himself with no warrant and just beating the shit out of anyone he can while occasionally firing off his gigantic gun. Later, when the same gang of thugs in astoundingly terrible shirts try to strong-arm the proprietor of Dolph’s favorite tea parlor, he protects her by starting a fight that basically demolishes her restaurant entirely.

The demolition attracts the attention of a wandering cop named Johnny Murata (Brandon Lee), which is odd since almost no other action in the film, no matter how massive or destructive, will attract the attention of any cops until it is all conveniently over. Murata and Kenner, naturally, can’t stand one another at first but are never the less forced to work together on a case that involves hunting down murderous, drug-dealing beer magnate and yakuza clan chief Funekei Yoshida, played by America’s most dependable villainous Asian, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Not only does Tagawa traffic in meth and eye-searingly gaudy silk shirts, he also runs prostitution rings, gets his jollies by decapitating women while having sex with them, and just because none of that makes him evil enough, he also murdered Kenner’s parents when the towering cop was just a child.

With the rote plot thusly established, the movie can get down to business — business being Dolph Lundgren taking off his shirt and throwing dudes through windows while Brandon Lee makes wisecracks and occasionally joins in. Surprisingly, even though these two cops seemed mismatched at first, in time they grow to respect one another. Who would have guessed? Together, they must put an end to Tagawa’s evil reign of terror, which means they will have to kick a lot of people in the nuts and smash a lot of windows. Also thrown into the mix is Tia Carrere as a singer in one of Tagawa’s absurdly gigantic strip club/music hall/gambling parlor/storage facilities, because this movie needs someone for Dolph to, umm, I guess you’d call it romance so long as “romance” includes giving a suicidal woman a shotgun and later making love to her the same day she just got raped by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Anyway, Dolph’s romance with her is applied as lightly as possible, since obviously the real sparks are between him and his smirking partner.

And here we come again to the question of homoeroticism. For my money, I feel like it’s pretty intentional here, maybe to the point where we get the idea that the writes of these sorts of films were in on it as well and decided to rachet it up to the level of parody. For starters, we have the fact that there’s an epic amount of punches and kicks to the crotch, so much so that Brandon Lee even remarks at one point that Dolph’s character must have some sort of fixation. Later in the film, Dolph and Brandon confront Tagawa in his gang in one of those steamy bath houses where yakuza guys are always hanging out in their stylish cloth thong diapers. That in itself isn’t all that homoerotic, at least not any more than steamy naked men are in any of the probably hundreds of yakuza movies where we see them hanging out in the public bath. That’s pretty standard in Japan, after all. But when, in the course of inevitable bath house fight, assailants chose to spray each other down with a hose — well, maybe then it crosses into homoerotic territory.

But none of this matters, really, because the film’s coup de grace, the line that makes it a gay action film through and through, comes when Dolph’s Japanese style retreat is assaulted by Tagawa’s goons. Dolph, needless to say, is naked (though sadly too cloaked in shadow — though you don’t need to search hard to find “Dolph Lundgren naked” on the Internet). When he and Brandon admit that this may indeed be their final stand, Brandon takes a loving look at Dolph’s genitals and remarks that he wants his buddy to know that if they die, the last thing he wants to be known for saying is that “you have the biggest dick I’ve ever seen on a man.” Which isn’t just a screamingly homoerotic thing to say; it’s also just plain awkward and weird. The biggest dick you’ve ever seen on a man? As opposed to…? Elephants and shit, I guess. This whole scene is followed up with the duo being strapped down — Brandon shirtless, Dolph in nothing but the aforementioned leather booty shorts — sprayed down, and tortured. If the screenwriters weren’t actively toying with the action film’s tendency toward homoeroticism, then I guess I just have to turn in my dandy card.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to make that assertion completely, as both Stephen Glantz and Caliope Brattlestreet have very few screenwriting credits to their name. However, we can turn our focus to the director, Mark Lester, and perhaps advance this pointless but amusing hypothesis slightly. After all, this is the same director who, some few years earlier, gave us one the most screamingly camp villains in action film history — Bennett in Commando, who was in turn played by Vernon Wells, best known as…well, best known as Bennett from Commando, but also known as the pink mohawk sporting, assless leather pants wearing, gay madman Wez from Road Warrior. It seems likely to me that a guy like Lester would have been fully aware of the fact that the oiled pecs and manly grappling of 80s action films conjured up a certain homoerotic vibe and so would have a ball (erm, so to speak) taking it to a self-conscious extreme in a film like Showdown in Little Tokyo, where very little is taken seriously anyway. And best of all, unlike most action movies that grapple with their own sexuality, Showdown in Little Tokyo doesn’t attempt to compensate by featuring a flamboyantly gay villain or a scene where the heroes beat up a homosexual or sling homophobic slurs, at least not that I can remember.

Anyway, that’s all sweaty fun and games, but poking at a film’s homoeroticism — intentional or not — can only get you so far. Besides, we can also talk about how the movie walks that 80s action movie line between exploiting yellow peril paranoia and trying to protect itself from being labeled as racist. Their economy has since collapsed and thrown everyone into a state of seemingly endless dazed shellshock, but back in the 1980s, everyone was pretty sure that if the Soviets didn’t nuke us, then Japan was going to own us. The Japanese economy had become a global powerhouse, and panicked stories about how Japanese businessmen were buying up America and would own us all ran rampant in the news. And since Hollywood never met a hysteria it couldn’t exploit, we also got a fair number of movies about how the Japanese were going to buy America. These movies usually also focused on the seedy notion that they Japanese were also a bunch of freaky sexual perverts, because that scared people even more and made for better exploitation films. After all, what’s more interesting — a movie about a dedicated and determined Japanese businessman who buys up a lot of New York real estate purely on the merits of his cunning as a businessman, or one where he does that but also covers himself in blood, has freaky sex, and kidnaps white women?

Thus we got movies like Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, Charles Bronson’s Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, and the Wesley Snipes-Sean Connery joint venture Rising Sun, among others. Each of them tend to portray Japanese men as murderous sex fiends and gangsters, usually with a desire to bag a white chick or sell them into prostitution. Jimmy Wang Yu would have been delighted if only he didn’t hate white people almost as much as he hates the Japanese. The movies usually tried to temper the racism a little bit by having one of the main characters be into Japan, or have a Japanese wife, or something like that, but usually this just resulted in having a white character who was also a more awesome Japanese person than actual Japanese people. The exception there is Black Rain, which takes the premise of “Fuck you, Japan! Americans are awesome!” and by the end of the film has had its main character grow to believe, “No seriously, fuck you, Japan! Americans are awesome!” without having ever learned anything about Japan.

Of course, the entire thing ended up being a xenophobic fever dream, and even if it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have much mattered since it turned out Japan’s unstoppable economy was mostly smoke and mirrors (China, take note). Japan went to hell, and we in America were left with a bunch of pretty ridiculously hysterical movies wringing their hands over a threat that never was. Although Showdown in Little Tokyo fulfills many of the same cliches as other yellow peril movies of the day, it seems decidedly less…malicious. It lacks the hate of those other films. I don’t really want to make excuses for the film, but the general air of goofiness about everything makes it hard to believe they were very serious about promoting the agenda of making Americans afraid of Japanese people. The other movies I mentioned were so deadly earnest about their message that creepy Japanese guys were coming over here to buy our houses and rape our women. Showdown in Little Tokyo, as it did with homoeroticism, seems to be goofing on the idea more than anything else. Maybe not. I don’t know, but it doesn’t bother me the way the same stuff does in other movies — could be I’m just shallow, and the sight of Dolph Lundgren’s hilarious samurai outfit he puts on for no reason during the finale softens the racially insensitive blows that might have otherwise been landed by all the Asian chick bangin’ white guy superiority and admiration of their cocks by their mostly asexual Asian buddy. In fact, the fact that the white guy is the half Asian guy and the Japanese guy is a gigantic, muscular Nordic guy only further convinces me that Showdown is making fun of the convention.

A lot of this has to do with our two leads, who always seem to be on the verge of cracking up in front of the camera. Brandon Lee wasn’t a star at this point in his career, and Showdown in Little Tokyo ended up being too low profile to turn him into one — though it did probably get him the job in the next year’s Rapid Fire, which did make him a star. In Showdown, he’s somewhere between the awkwardness of his previous film, Laser Mission, and the comfort he would find in his later films. But there’s always the charisma, and even if he tends toward mugging for the camera a little too much, he’s still an engaging performer. And Dolph? Dolph gets a bad rap. Like many action stars of the era, he was a limited actor –not a bad one. Within very specific confines, he was more than capable. He lacks the charisma of Arnold, but he’s still got charisma. And his chemistry with Lee makes for a pretty entertaining duo. Of course, he has no chemistry at all with Tia, but that’s as much her fault as it is his and the screenwriters.

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa turns in his usual performance, which is to say, he makes a great bad guy. The dude was born to play the sneering, hissing villain in the same way Eddie Deezen was born to play a nerd and William Atherton was born to play a smug prick. Tagawa only has one setting, and it’s off the charts. Gods what I wouldn’t give to see him and Nic Cage go head-to-head. His gang is basically forgettable, as their primary function is to pull out butterfly knives, get punched or shot, and wear atrocious shirts. His eventual comeuppance in the finale is utterly absurd, and it fulfills the commandment that any movie that deals with Asians have at least one scene that takes place during a Dragon Dance parade, which as we’ve learned happen all day, every day in every Chinatown.

Actually, the film’s true villain is Sybil Grey, in charge of the movie’s costumes and wardrobe. From the endless parade of blinding shirts to Dolph’s high-waisted pants to his hilarious samurai duds, Sybil Grey has committed sartorial transgressions that will fry your eyes and make you weep tears of blood.

I guess poor Tia does her best to keep up, but between Tagawa’s batshit insanity, Dolph’s build, and Lee’s unpolished charisma, there’s just not much for her to do other than look confused. She gets to sing a song, which was always her dream, but it’s as forgettable as the rest of her performance. She also gets to do a love scene with Dolph, but the requisite nudity was handled by a body double, which is shameful since Lundgren was more than willing to do his own nudity. I don’t think I’ve seen Tia Carrere in anything where she was particularly good, so I’m going to go ahead and classify her “bad actress,” even though I will freely admit to having seen just about every episode of Relic Hunter. Still, her role here is really nothing more than pretty damsel in distress, and she manages to fulfill the minimum basic requirements. Ultimately, the only bad thing I can say about the cast is that through some incredible lack of attention, it doesn’t include Al Leong.

The true star of Showdown in Little Tokyo, I need hardly point out, is the action, and while we’re not getting served up the kungfu antics of Jackie Chan or the balletic gunplay of John Woo, Showdown doesn’t skimp on the sort of two-fisted big galoot action one expects from a low budget American action film. Dolph is in peak form, and he gets to bust how his martial arts moves in addition to just shooting everything in sight and throwing chumps in bad suits through windows. Brandon Lee, a bit surprisingly, spends most of the movie just shooting at things. He throws down in a few martial arts fights, but for the sort-of American debut of the son of Bruce Lee (one can hardly count Laser Mission, as entertaining as his bad acting and one-liners may be in that one), I expected he would make with the fists and feet of fury a little more frequently. If you want Brandon Lee the martial artist, you are to this day better off with his sole crack at a Hong Kong action film, Legacy of Rage.

When taking the measure of “blowing stuff up in Asian neighborhoods” movies, Showdown in Little Tokyo can’t measure up to the undisputed king of such films: Big Trouble in Little China. But then, it’s a very different type of film. And for what it is, Showdown is imminently watchable and entertaining. It thumbs its nose at the conventions of the buddy cop and yellow peril genres, delivering a ton of action and protagonists that keep the movie fun. It should have been a bigger hit than it was, but you can’t have everything. Since it’s initial release, it’s found an increasingly large cult fanbase, and not just because it stars Brandon Lee. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see it increasingly embraced by the same members of the gay community who, hungry for thrills and action instead of maudlin drama, have embraced the sword and sandal films of the 1960s. There’s certainly more than enough sweaty manhood and ludicrous camp to make it a hit in that regard, even if the full frontal nude photos I’ve seen of Dolph Lundgren are evidence against Brandon Lee’s claims about genital majesty. I mean, there’s nothing shameful about what he’s packing, and it didn’t hurt my eyes to have a gander at it for a spell. But the biggest? I don’t think so. Maybe Brandon Lee just hadn’t seen that many dicks. No worries though; Dolph has plenty of everything else to offer.

Showdown also delivers frequent car chases and explosions, once again never attracting the attention of the police even when they take place in the middle of a well-populated area or organized parade. The heroes and villains are pretty much free to blast the shit out of anything and everything without any real consequence, which is the way we like it. This is Los Angeles, after all, and if a 6’5″ former MIT student with a hand cannon runs by you chasing a snarling Japanese guy waving a sword, well you just let those handsome devils go about their business The plot rarely spends much time between action scenes, preferring to get the bare minimum particulars over with as quickly as possible so it can move on to another scene of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa screaming or Dolph taking off his shirt and punching someone through a wall. Mark Lester is usually pretty good at pacing his films, and Showdown is no exception. It’s a pretty great ride from start to finish, with no real down time.

Release Year: 1991 | Country: United States | Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Brandon Lee, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Tia Carrere, Toshiro Obata, Philip Tan, Rodney Kageyama, Ernie Lively, Renee Griffin, Reid Asato, Simon Rhee | Screenplay: Stephen Glantz, Caliope Brattlestreet | Director: Mark L. Lester | Cinematography: Mark Irwin | Music: David Michael Frank