American Yakuza

…the guy from Karate Kid II says he smells like cheeseburgers.
Our Rating

Genre(s): Action. Crime. Drama

Director: Frank Cappello

Actors: Viggo Mortensen, Ryo Ishibashi, Michael Nouri

Year: 1993

MPAA Rating: R

Country: United States

Forgive me if I slip and call American Yakuza “American Yazuka”, but I’ve been calling it that for weeks. “When are we going to watch American Yazuka? Is American Yazuka here yet? I wanna watch Viggo in American Yazuka!” Even after being corrected, I persisted, as though I had a bizarre disability like that kid in The Royal Tennenbaums who couldn’t learn how to tell time.

Watching American Yakuza on a weekday afternoon is pretty much like watching an R-rated after school special; flimsy plot, nondescript 80’s synth music, and plenty of before-they-were-famous faces—like Viggo Mortensen… and, um, Viggo Mortensen! Michael Nouri of made-for-TV Danielle Steele movie fame, and Yuji Okumoto, Daniel LaRusso’s archenemy from Karate Kid II are the only other recognizable actors. As an interesting aside, Yuji Okumoto now owns the Kona Kitchen restaurant in Seattle. I think we should all head over there for dinner so this man doesn’t have to supplement his income with acting any more.

The film begins with Viggo’s release from prison. He takes a job as a forklift operator in a warehouse, and it’s all pretty mundane until the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) shows up and starts shooting. Viggo jumps right in, since apparently none of this strikes him as odd. He drops some wooden palates on the bad guys, and before you know it, he’s a member of the gang. Admittedly he does stick out a little, and the guy from Karate Kid II says he smells like cheeseburgers.

But alas, there is a twist! Viggo is actually an undercover cop, but the FBI keeps stepping in and nearly blowing his cover. It’s never clearly explained what the purpose of the investigation is, since all sorts of illegal activity goes on without any resolution. The conflict between the Italian mafia and the Yakuza is never properly explained either, but there’s still plenty of shooting and swordplay.

In the meantime, Viggo finds romance with his “interior decorator”, who has the strong moral fiber to thwart his advances and save the audience from a potentially pornographic scene. When he moves in to slow dance with her, she pushes him away and hisses, “Not in public!”. Phew! Close call.

Also noteworthy is Viggo’s official initiation into the Yakuza. The ceremony finds Viggo and the mob boss sitting cross-legged on top of a table and includes wrapping little saucers in napkins and hiding them in their pockets. Clearly a shift in his alliance can’t be too far on the horizon.

American Yakuza wouldn’t have been so bad if it had made more sense and hadn’t been so low budget. Get rid of the ridiculous Karate Kid guy, bring in Shane Black to fix up the script, get some real music for the score, and you’ve got yourself an action movie with potential. As it is, we’re left with 95 minutes of eye candy. Viggo looks every bit as good as he does in A Walk on the Moon, but his talent is squandered in this flop.


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