Director: Robert Radler
Writer: Stuart Gibbs
Cast: Billy Blanks, Kenn Scott, Ken McLeod, Patrick Kilpatrick, John Mallory Asher, Christine Taylor, Mike Genovese, Linda Dona, Brion James, James Lew
Almost no cinematic story is as frequently rehashed as Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo. A tale of a loner arriving to a new land and being thrust into a conflict between two gangs, it has formed the basis for countless films. Released over 20 years later, Karate Kid is the story of a loner arriving to a new land and getting his ass kicked by karate-fighting bullies before being trained by a wise elder to fight. Similarly, it has countless imitators. Director Robert Radler (Best of the Best) and Billy Blanks teamed up in 1993 for Showdown, a copycat with no shame whatsoever about its inspirational origins.
In yet another film role in which his character is named Billy, Blanks plays a well-meaning police officer with a distaste for his department-issued firearm. On patrol one night, his partner, Spinelli (Genovese) encourages him to carry it while investigating a house party disturbance. When they arrive it’s the usual smattering of drunk kids, loud music, and Patrick Kilpatrick and his on-screen brother being drunken pricks. As the ruffian Lee, I presume Kilpatrick is supposed to be young here, but dude was like 43 years old when this shizz was filmed. Not totally weird, since we’ve all had our share of creepy old guys at our alcohol parties. Billy asks them to chill out, but Lee’s little brother struggles for Billy’s gun and falls to the ground, smacking his melon on the marble floor. Billy tries to shake him back into consciousness but the accident proves fatal.
Billy lets out the requisite “NOOOOOOO!” as Lee is arrested, and this moment of disbelieving grief then dissolves to a fat, naked Spinelli showering in the men’s locker room. Uh … interesting transition there, Radler. Spinelli tries to convince his partner that accidents happen and he needs to deal with the situation in order to cope, but Billy can’t even stand the sight of his own uniform and effectively resigns.
The story refocuses on Ken Marx (Scott), a Kansas-bred teenager who moves to the West coast for his senior year of high school. He’s your classic underdog: he’s short, wears dorky oversized clothes, and brings a Thermos to school. In an entertaining performance as ball-busting Assistant Principal Kowalski, Brion James introduces Ken to a madhouse of a public school where nerds, meatheads, and gangbangers all intermingle. For better or worse, Ken has a couple of other peers on which to lean during the transition.
Showdown features two spouses -- one current, one former -- of more famous people in prominent supporting roles. As Mike, ex-Jenny McCarthy squeeze John Mallory Asher is the film’s primary comic relief and Ken’s only friend. He does his best to warn Ken about the school’s various characters, including the smelly kid, the neo-Nazi clique, and Julie, the beautiful girl in math class. Played by Christine Taylor (Ben Stiller’s wife), Julie is a sweetheart but has fallen into the pattern that most attractive high school girls tend toward: she dates an asshole.
Around these parts, that asshole is Tom (McLeod), a kickboxing whiz with his own gang of jerkoff lackies. While he oozes confidence and has hair to put Flock of Seagulls to shame, Tom is also violently overprotective. His standard operating procedure: fight anyone who talks to his girl. Ken doesn’t get the message, which leads to several beatdowns that leave Ken bruised and his spirit broken.
Billy, now working as a janitor, finds the teen in the aftermath of one of these confrontations and eventually teaches Ken how to defend himself. In assuming the role of the tough but soft-spoken guru, Blanks seems far more natural and relaxed dramatically than when playing cops or former special forces soldiers. His usually stiff line delivery is mostly absent and while he’s a quality action lead, he’s up to the task as a strong supporting character here. The only downside is that Blanks keeps the lid on his trademark fight screams and awesome facial expressions. There’s also an interesting behavioral nuance to flesh out his character; he’s often tinkering with random electronic circuitry. To what end, though? A time machine? Robot? We never find out, but Billy has bigger fish to fry. Namely: illegal fights and his past. (Neither of which are fish, but everything is better fried.)
Years after the house party incident, Lee is a changed man. He has well-kempt facial hair and stylish turtlenecks. Once an obnoxious drunkard acting a fool, he’s now a stoic and feared martial-arts sensei who teaches that “successs is control” and “control is success.” Fuckin’ genius. Tom is his top pupil and a regular competitor in Lee’s illegal underground matches and his right-hand chick, Kate (Dona) actively recruits new talent for the festivities. Unfortunately for them, Billy catches wind of their venture and aims to put an end to it.
Unlike most other movies aping Karate Kid, Showdown has some semblance of self-awareness and knows what kind of territory it occupies. During training, Ken is cleaning toilets under Billy’s supervision. He stops and concludes that, based on these unorthodox Miyagi-lite training methods, he’s learning martial-arts techniques. Not so, Billy says, you’re learning humility. I call bullshit on this: it’s just a way for Billy to get Ken to do his shitty janitorial work.
The film nearly chokes on its own saccharine sentimentality but Blanks manages to dislodge the blockage with several kicks to the diaphragm. While the action isn’t spectacular, it’s passable. Blanks and legendary stuntman James Lew have a fairly entertaining fight which sees them lay waste to a high school drama set. While they're few and far between, Kilpatrick's action scenes are scripted competently enough to mask his lack of martial-arts training. Instead, Kilpatrick goes the pro wrestling heel route with his character by playing to the crowd, gouging eyeballs, throwing opponents into guardrails, and using his belt to whip fallen opponents. Not very sensei of him, but it works.
Aside from the maudlin overtones, my biggest criticism with the film is the music. The film's main score sounds like something that would play over the opening credits of a TGIF sitcom in 1990. Perhaps I’ve been conditioned to dig rock tracks or orchestral scores during my fight and training montage scenes but keyboard arrangements don’t cut it. They make these scenes a lot less dramatic and not even the occasional sax line can save them. You throw some stabby synths or squealing guitar in there and the movie instantly takes on a more brutal ass-kicking tone.
While not a great movie, Showdown is a personal sentimental favorite from my formative years and one of the better Karate Kid clones of its era. It does nothing new but Radler is a competent director, it has some fun moments, and there’s enough action to keep your attention. Even better, there are legitimately good performances here. As the villains, Kilpatrick chews up all kinds of scenery and McLeod is sufficiently dickish as the thirtysomething attempting to play a high school bully. Asher is a total cornball but stops short of being outright obnoxious and as mentioned, Blanks is great as the mentor and father figure. Kenn Scott is a reasonably sympathetic central character and his martial-arts skills are adequate (as an aside, he went under the latex shell to play Raphael in TMNT: Secret of the Ooze.) He also sorta looks like mini-Ben Stiller all jacked up on Pixie Sticks so maybe his brand of short, dark, and handsome is what prompted Christine Taylor turn to her future hubby’s show on MTV and say “He will be mine. Oh yes, he will be mine.”
Your best bet is VHS but you might luck into an out of region disc on Amazon or EBay.
5 / 7