This week on An Alan Smithee Podcast we grab our pieces and visit two urban jungles of two different ethnicities. Who runs their little ethnic enclave better, the Little Italians or the Little Japanese? If either film is to be believed, crime is a huge problem in both areas. The big difference is whether the local mob is home grown or imported directly from Big Tokyo. This also determines the tone of the movie, since one of the films directors carries some childhood sympathies for the people and lifestyle, while the other cast a world famous white guy and dropped him into smack dab into yellow peril.
Mean Streets is the film that made Martin Scorcese famous. The story involves the mafia, a subject which his films helped make famous almost as much as another Italian American gentleman, Francis Ford Coppola, with The Godfather that very same year. Unlike that famous crime saga, this film focuses on the low levels of mob employment and a young man struggling to justify his future career with his Catholic fear of eternity in Hell, played by Harvey Keitel. As if this weren’t enough to worry about, his best friend – Robert DeNiro, in a star making turn – is a loose cannon with a big mouth and debts all over town.
Scorcese never really grew as a filmmaker: he was great from the start. His interests didn’t have to grow either, he would continue to make films about crime, Catholicism and urban alienation with or without DeNiro in the coming decades and has only recently seemed to choose projects based on books he picked up at the library, like a random biography or cheesy horror novel. Mean Streets is at the epicenter of personal connection to the things which mattered most to him, filmed in the part of New York he grew up in and scored to the pop songs he grew up listening to. A real Italian slice of life with extra parmesan.
If the filmmakers behind Showdown in Little Tokyo had made Mean Streets, someone probably would’ve been killed with a pizza. That is to say, director Mark L. Lester of Commando fame did not bring with him any personal cultural understanding of the Japanese culture. The biggest overtures to Japanese culture are the casting of two non-Japanese Asian-Americans, Tia Carrere of Wayne’s World fame and Bruce Lee’s belated son Brandon Lee in his first American film.
The real star is not just a white guy but one of the whitest guys you know: Dolph Lundgren, out to clean up the mean streets of Little Tokyo with the superior understanding of Asian martial arts that only a Swedish guy can engineer. He and Lee trade some gay banter, crack skulls, and unlike a lot of buddy actions movies we’ve seen here on An Alan Smithee Podcast, director Mark Lester truly does not mess around when it comes to flattering one’s short attention span with outrageous violence. A big dumb fun dose of brain damage from 1991, the year that action movies died inside.
NEXT WEEK: THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942, FRANK TUTTLE) & CONGO (1995, FRANK MARSHALL)