Retro Isn't New : SHOWDOWN (1993)
Much as I’d like to deny it, I’m caught in the nostalgic zeitgeist that is sweeping the culture far and wide. You can buy Vinyl at Target, find a redux ATARI game system at Walmart, Polaroid film and cameras are being manufactured again…and they are good…flip-phones are coming back, repertory and retro cinema is flourishing, the midnight movie circuit is revived of life, shows from 20 years ago are getting reissued or rebooted, we have a video rental store in the Philadelphia region (Viva Video!) and film distributors are all branding their own retro labels to cash in on the physical media/analog craze now that smaller labels, like MVD Rewind, have tilled the soil. As we approach the 2020 benchmark, the 90’s (and the 80’s in a more complete way) have officially been subsumed into the “retro” miasma and we are swan-diving into the haze, leaving only the rock under which JNCO Jeans are buried un-turned. Not all of these nascent “retro” lines are created equal, not all are genuinely tapping into the source, not all issue from the heart or offer something new with the old, but some do “spark joy” in their efforts to create a palpable and sincere effect. Thus I am carving out a little space here called Retro Isn’t New to periodically scratch the vicarious time travel itch.
Retro Isn’t New will primarily try to keep pace with the growing MVD Rewind Collection, a retro treasure of the Greater Philadelphia region from indie distributor MVD Entertainment, but it will also be a place wherein to explore this evolving throwback moment that shows no relenting, especially with Mill Creek’s I <3 90’s line coming out in mere months. It begs the question though… what exactly is “retro”? We know that it isn’t mere presentation or anachronism. There is something more to it, something intuitive, something calculated. It is part celebration, part preservation, part reverence, part irreverence and all nostalgia. Foundational to any successful “retro” endeavor is intentionality and context. The best examples are possessed of their original form, imbued with the idea of their age made tactile and novel but stopping just shy of full-blooded imitation. Perhaps it is only because we have the internet now wherein to find anything that has ever existed, or have youtube to see whatever obscure commercial, scene or film we have hazy memories of, that these recent waves of evocative objects seem to hold a rush of value and sentiment, or perhaps it is clarifying the balance of tactility and ephemerality inherent to our tastes.
If you can do retro well, you can also do it badly. You can try too hard or not enough. For my money, Rewind gets it goldilocks, striding the line between serious and fun, precision and parody. Thanks to Director of Acquisitions Eric Wilkinson, Rewind takes a kind of gives-zero-fucks-but-actually-cares approach to rehabilitating wayside titles (many from the over 150 films produced by now dissolved Imperial Entertainment) that have been forgotten to time, some of which never even survived the leap from VHS to DVD, like their recent release Showdown (1993). Rewind shows their love with unlikely 1080p upgrades and new exclusive special features, which constitute a sense of care never truly afforded these films. Their cast and crew interviews and making-of documentaries are a cache of self-effacing humility and enthusiasm at the respective artifacts on display. Filmmakers will relish how much process is discussed regarding these scrappy resourceful productions. I may have eaten up the more-Karate-Kid-than-not Showdown with a spoon, but Rewind’s making-of doc (which is longer than the film itself) had me smiling ear to ear. These currently 16 editions from Rewind are simply steeped in reminiscence and that makes them a benchmark of retro done well. It is also what I mean by intentionality and context, generated from within.
Showdown (aka American Karate Tiger) is Rewind’s 15th release. It uses a classic genre framework, with big bads, tortured pasts, damsels in distress, fish out of water foibles, and the chance for good to triumph and the underdog to rise. Perhaps little more than Karate Kid updated to the 90’s, Showdown has teeth to it, courtesy of Best Of The Best (I & II) director Robert Radler who really helped catalyze the fight/MMA-before-MMA film, legendary choreographer and stunt actor Jeff Imada who whipped together fight scenes on the fly, and Billy Blanks who brought a then 6th-level black belt into the fold. When territory is this well tread, all that’s really left to do is look at the pieces, how they differ in kind and coloration from the other iterations in the genre kaleidoscope. Does it work when you put the pieces together? Myself and the humble cast and crew (especially the hilariously critical and honest screenwriter Stuart Gibbs, and the ever optimistic co-star Billy Blanks) tend to think ultimately… yes. The dramatic arcs are simplistic but full, the stakes are clear, the archetypes are rife, comic relief is peppered throughout and the fighting is rough-and-tumble. All the simple satisfying genre elements are in place and the beats are hit at a nice pace. Scrutiny aside, this was an easy one to lean into while floating on this retro buzz.
Ken Marks (Kenn Scott, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze) and his now single mom move from the sticks to LA in the middle of his senior year in her search of work, but the good natured Ken swiftly finds a dangerous enemy in Tom (Ken McLeod) on his first day at his new unruly school; an enemy who makes his living as the champion of an illegal fighting operation, led by the sinister sadistic Lee (Patrick Kilpatrick) and his cruel co-conspirator Kate (Linda Donna). Ken also happens to have a crush on Tom’s girlfriend Julie (Christine Taylor, The Brady Bunch Movie), who is both cautious and curious about her new classmate as she desires to be freed from Tom’s ever increasing misogyny. School janitor and ex-cop Billy Grant (Billy Blanks, The Last Boy Scout) trains Ken to defend himself after witnessing a few scuffles instigated by Tom who seems to wield all the power at school. What Billy doesn't know is that the man behind it all, the one grooming Tom and an entire crop of impressionable power-hungry youth is Lee, is the one man from his own past who wants him dead. All the stakes are there. What works in this well-intentioned bareknuckled clunker is the moment-to-moment details, the comedy that you appreciate whether it lands or doesn’t, the extremity of the villainy, the flourishes of sincerity and the surprisingly realistic pace. Radler, who caught some flack for his abundant training montages in Best of the Best, is at it again in Showdown, but in doing so this time gives credibility to the evolution of its novice fighter (struggling to hide an incredibly toned physique under baggy shirts until a climactic reveal). We see Ken dedicate time and energy across the whole film, not just in pockets and so we tend to believe that he has accumulated real skills. They are tested throughout and he improves upon each test, and this adds to his believable growth as a fighter. One of the most important things that really sells a fight is when the “hero” takes a hit, and Ken takes many a hit. We’re never totally sure if he’ll actually come out on top, and that makes for a more dramatic and exciting experience that isn’t always convincingly part of the genre.
What Showdown gets wrong is it’s patently weak female characterizations. Julie is little more than a damsel and Kate, though demonstratively powerful and manipulative, never emerges as more than a caricature. Lee may never emerge from the tone of a caricature, but he at least has the privilege of a backstory. Its characters’ inconsistent logic (sometimes contradicting themselves within a scene) are confounding, but most of all, Showdown loses points for its unnecessary and overwhelming whiteness, particularly for a film which is supposed to take place largely in a troubled and unruly LA high school. What Showdown gets counteractively right is positioning the most dynamic and virtuous character, Billy, as a person of color, and moreover ultimately elevates Billy’s stakes as the equal-or-greater ones of the entire narrative, entwined with protagonist Ken Marks’. Billy isn’t simply there to serve Ken’s evolution, but in assuming the role of trainer and ally, Billy actually propels his own rehabilitation, and that mutuality gives Showdown a shred more credibility in the face of it’s absent diversity. Billy’s generosity and kindness as a character seem to be pure extensions of his own nature, and it is one of the things I enjoyed most from the revealing documentary about his career featured on this release.
As hamfisted as some of the performances tend to be, I found myself viscerally frustrated with the domineering misogyny and bullying on display. I could feel my body flinch with muscle memory as I watched the brawls, grinning like an idiot for training montage after training montage, and even caught myself from talking smack TO the movie when the shit was going down. Yet again, I wish I had caught this one as a child, because Showdown would have been right up there with Commando (1985), Marked For Death (1990), Point Break (1991) and Predator 2 (1990) as my youthful insatiables, and most certainly I would have long exhausted “Success is control, control is success” as a quotable.
Showdown Blu-ray Features
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the main feature in 1.78:1 aspect ratio
Audio: English 5.1 Surround, 2.0 Stereo
Original Theatrical Trailer
New “Fights of Showdown” featurette (47min)
New Feature Length Making-of Documentary
New Billy Blanks: Martial Arts Legend career feature (15min)
New Showdown “Anantomy of a Scene” feature. (7min)
New Robert Radler: Portrait of a Director featurette (12min)