American Yakuza 2: Back To Back Is Your Weekend Cheesy Movie

by Erik Amaya

Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.

This week: Back to Back

These days, Michael Rooker is a national treasure. Filmmaker James Gunn conned a major film studio into producing a movie about how he is better than both Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone. But back in the 1990s, Rooker was a working actor in projects like Back to Back, the sequel to American Yakuza, a film we may cover some day as it was co-written by Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell star John Allen Nelson. That film featured Viggo Mortensen as an FBI agent who finds himself choosing to remain an agent or join either the Yakuza or the Mafia. It also featured Ryo Ishibashi as a member of the Yakuza. The 1993 film was apparently successful enough for Ishibashi — and no one else — to return for this seemingly in-name-only sequel, which happens to be your weekend cheesy movie.

The plot concerns Bob Malone (Rooker), a down-on-his-luck ex-cop who is about to be thrown out of his home due to late mortgage payments. He’s divorced and all but one of his kids, Chelsea (Danielle Harris) chose to stay with their mother. Chelsea has to regularly bail his ass out of jail as he constantly gets into drunk and disorderly scrapes. For instance, on the morning we meet him, he foils a robbery orchestrated by Bobcat Goldthwait(!), killing several of his accomplices in the process.

Goldthwait escapes, however, and gives chase until he crashes into an Italian restaurant somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. And because he woke up deciding to be the Joker that day, he straps on a suicide vest and takes the patrons hostage. But little does our deranged bank robber know Koji (Ishibashi) and Hideo (Koh Tagasugi) — two Yakuza enforcers sent to kill a Mafia don — are also in the restaurant. Koji slices Goldthwait’s hand off with a convenient meat cleaver to get control of the vest’s deadman switch and rescue the patrons. He also let’s go of the switch when Goldthwait becomes problem. The explosion is quite agreeable. Koji is taken into custody while Hideo, who was shot in the altercation with Goldthwait, makes a long journey back to their HQ, a strip club on the other side of the Valley.

Fate brings Malone and Koji together when the latter meets Chelsea at the police station. Desperate to escape the attention of law enforcement, Koji kidnaps the father and daughter. They all end up at the soon-to-be foreclosed home, where it becomes clear a.) Malone’s old lieutenant, Tony Dussecq (John Laughlin), is dirty and b.) the mob is sending an army to kill them all. Malone and Koji are forced to work back to back to save their own skins and Chelsea.

And if this plot sounds like a childish, but awesome fever dream of life in organized crime, that’s part of the charm. The film was co-written and directed by Roger Nygard, who would deliver the seminal documentary Trekkies the next year. And the Minnesota sensibility suffusing that film is on display here. Back to Back is strangely innocent. The police all know Chelsea by name and just josh Malone for killing three people instead of booking him. The strip club HQ features no nudity. Hideo’s journey back to the HQ is soundtracked by twangy guitar to remind you he loves Elvis Presley. The Italian mafia figures come straight out of Fat Tony’s gang on The Simpsons. Nygard uses swipes as transitions throughout, giving it a childlike feel.

Also, the presence of Goldthwait, fellow comedian Jake Johannsen, and comedic actor Vincent Schiavelli may make you think the whole thing is intended as a spoof of low budget action pictures. But once the mafia comes to shoot-up the Malone house, it becomes clear Nygard means for you to take this more or less seriously. It gets jolly violent. But that’s really the best for the film. Sure, it’s sort of dopey and otherworldly — particularly any time it cuts back to Hideo — but it works better as a straight action picture than a spoof. For one thing: none of the actual comedic moments work. Also, certain bits (any scene with Hideo, for example) go on way too long despite some truly spazzy editing choices.

Luckily, all of Nygard’s aims for the film are anchored by a trio of fine performers. Rooker is rock solid throughout. He’s giving the same Rooker performance he gives in movies as great as Guardians of the Galaxy and as cheesy as Cliffhanger. But even as the lead, here, it works. You want to see if Malone will survive and if he will clean up his act. Ishibashi is a freaking great presence here. Though he is not the same character from American Yakuza, I imagine the performance isn’t far off. He’s cool with an underlying hint of menace. He’s that guy in the white suit who you know will do something rad — and he does it every ten minutes or so. Harris, meanwhile, always played great kids — although the film is imprecise about how young she’s supposed to be — and Chelsea is exactly the sort of person you’d expect Malone to raise. She’s rebellious and assertive, but she still loves her dad. She’s also the first person to recognize that there’s more to Koji than he presents. They bond almost instantly and she becomes a key catalyst in Malone and Koji forming their own bond.

Which is the lovely secret of Back to Back, while it is a cheap looking movie with a ton of cliches and a childlike sensibility, it allows a corny, but nice family story to develop thanks to the talents of Rooker, Ishibashi, and Harris. To an extent, it has that air of unlikely friendships you saw in John Woo pictures like The Killer, but with a thoroughly Midwestern voice. And that sort of thing is hard to pull off without embracing cheese.

Though the picture drags in spots — again, any scene with Hideo could be cut in half — it is a delightful little nugget of mid-90s action cheese, when bullets were plentiful and friendship could be found after a good fist fight.

American Yakuza 2: Back to Back is currently available on Amazon with a Prime subscription. A disc release is also available.

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