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American Yakuza (1993)

The mob has a new enemy.

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 92 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 18


Usually there are cruel pleasures to be had in going through the B-grade back-catalogue of an actor who has only recently become a big name – but Viggo Mortensen, newly crowned king of Hollywood as much as Middle Earth thanks to his star turn as Aragorn in the recent Lord of the Rings trilogy, has no need to be embarrassed by the DVD release of his culture-crossing crime thriller ‘American Yakuza’ from 1993. Far from coming back to haunt him, the film will leave viewers wondering why Mortensen’s talents were not generally recognised a lot earlier.

San Pedro, California. Fresh out of prison, Nick Davis (Viggo Mortensen) takes a job at a yakuza-owned dockyards, and becomes a firm friend of the owner Shuji Sawamoto (Ryo ‘Audition‘ Ishibashi) after saving his life during a violent raid. Realising that treacherous local Italian mafia boss Dino Campanela (Michael Nouri) was behind the raid, the yakuza start fighting a deadly turf war, and despite the initial suspicion and jealous racism of younger yakuza like Kazuo (Yuji Okumoto), Shuji helps Nick rise rapidly through the ranks as a resourceful and trusted brother. Except that Nick is in fact David Brandt, an undercover agent for the FBI – and as it becomes clear that his boss Agent Littman (Robert ‘Jackie Brown’ Forster) is doing his own double-dealing with Campanela’s mafia in a bid to wipe out the yakuza, Brandt finds himself torn between America’s rough justice and the loyalty and honour of his new Japanese ‘family’.

When the taciturn Nick asserts that “words are pretty much overrated”, his new friend Shuji agrees, replying “actions speak best” – and sure enough, from the explosive dockyard raid at its beginning to the hyperkinetic shoot-out at its end (with Nick and Shuji toting guns in both hands at once, John Woo-style), ‘American Yakuza’ presents itself as a straight action film. Yet director Frank A. Cappello, who went on to direct ‘No Way Back’ (1995) and has co-written the forthcoming ‘Constantine’, prefers to suggest violence than to show it directly, making ‘American Yakuza’ a film of remarkable restraint – and lurking not far beneath its bullet-riddled surface is a more serious drama of American rootlessness. Nick is portrayed as a “true American” – he is even “quarter Apache” – and yet he is alienated from his alcoholic parents, and is discovering that the FBI, that upholder of American values and “the only family he’s got”, is as corrupt and treacherous as the criminals it is tasked to weed out. The only place where Nick finds true acceptance is from the newly arrived yakuza who embrace him like a brother. “We are all” as Shuji puts it “outsiders here” – and it is one of this film’s sustained ironies that the Italian mafia who here boast of their “American drive and know-how” in taking on the yakuza were themselves the outsiders of the previous century, just as eager then to “get a foothold in this country”. For ‘American Yakuza’ is in effect ‘The Godfather: the next Generation’ – an immigrant saga of family, blood and assimilation that just happens to be set in the world of organised crime.

It's Got: Fine acting, rootless characters, a labyrinthine plot, violence (presented with considerable restraint), and a whole lot of cultural exchange.

It Needs: A bigger budget – and parts of it have the look of a rock video.

DVD Extras Widescreen presentation; scene selection; biography of Viggo Mortensen (who speaks fluent Spanish and Danish, has a solid grasp of Norwegian, French and Italian, and, like his character in the film, has worked as a forklift driver); trailer; brief stills gallery. Version reviewed: Released by Contender Entertainment Group, Catalogue no. CTD51065. DVD Extras Rating: 2/10


An immigrant saga of family, blood and assimilation that just happens to be set in the world of the yakuza.