Rage of Honor
We’ve seen it all, haven’t we? The hardened FBI agent/cop/spy who is sick of playing by the rules and ready to scrub the streets of criminal filth. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass what regulations he has to break, what wives/girlfriends/families he has to leave behind for their own good, and what cars/boats/planes he has to explode to do it. We’ve seen the young guns, the old burn-outs, the rogues, the ghosts of protocol. It’s a formula so played out that the applause has died, the musicians have put their instruments away, and the one-man janitorial staff has his mop bucket center stage. That’s not to say I’m disparaging – I love my John McLean, my Martin Riggs, my Ethan Hunt, 4 out of 7 James Bonds, I even have a healthy, un-ironic appreciation for Jack Reacher, but I figured that my heart was full of unbroken stallions who’s very nature is to buck the system, but that was before I met Shiro Tanaka. Move over boys, you have to make room for one more, and this one is a ninja.
Don’t worry, Shiro Tanaka (Sho Kasugi) in Rage of Honor fits all the criterion for the disillusioned lawman who is willing to deliver the McGuffin at all costs using his particular set of skills – ninja skills! He even looks damn good in a tux, which is what he’s wearing when he takes time out from his swanky evening with his girlfriend, Jennifer (Robin Evans), to check his DEA answering service and gets a message from his equally authority-disrespecting partner, Ray (Richard Wiley). Ray has followed a hot tip right into a trap set by the sadistic drug Lord, Havlock (Lewis Van Bergen). With his ivory scarf aflutter, Tanaka makes quick work of Havlock’s armed guards. They’re coming at him from all sides, but they are no match for his quick thinking and martial arts prowess. He has them so flustered that at one point he flips between two thugs shooting their handguns, causing them to nail each other square in the chests. For all of his turns in midair, Tanaka is still unable to turn back time, and when he gets to Ray it is too late. Ray is shirtless, bleeding, and barely conscious. Tanaka can only get the slightest information out of his friend before he goes limp in his arms. But Havlock is not finished yet. He has the warehouse rigged to blow, and with a blazing billow of smoke and flames, he thinks he has the pesky DEA agents out of his lustrous mullet once and for all. But Shiro Tanaka’s shiny black oxfords are always a few steps ahead, and he will soon have Havlock making like an amnesiac philosopher and thinking again.
Shiro Tanaka has the requisite disdain for authority in spades, qualifying him for the ranks of cinema’s badge-tossing hotheads. He quits on the spot when Commissioner Sterling (Gerry Gibson) puts the kibosh on his pursuit for Havlock. Tanaka will stop at nothing to avenge his friend and partner, and there is no red tape sticky enough to bind him. He buys his own ticket to Buenos Aires and justice! Actually, he buys two tickets to Buenos Aires – one for himself and one for Jennifer. Yeah, I thought it was a bad idea too, but don’t worry she’s only narrowly escaping being kidnapped constantly. Tanaka doesn’t need an agency when it comes to singlehandedly dismantling a major Argentinian drug ring, and he doesn’t even hold it against good ol’ Bob Sterling when he comes crawling back to him, begging him to retrieve some floppy disk full of secret intel. The DEA may not be a fan of his tactics, but they can’t argue with his expertise when it comes to getting two birds with one shuriken – delivering the disk and swift vengeance.
Though we never get to meet Tanaka’s Q, we do get to see him brandish some pretty sick crime-fighting gadgetry. Being both a government agent and a ninja, Tanaka is already better armed than the standard issue handgun. He’s also has his katana, pocketfuls of ninja stars, and a sweet crossbow, which is perfect for taking down any troublesome indigenous peoples who may be slowing you down from rescuing your captured girlfriend in the jungles of Argentina. He even has some never before seen, state of the art, ass-kicking gear. He has a pair of razor gloves, perfect for scaring the mustache off of one of Havlock’s goons. They’ve got two enormous knuckle knives and spikes sticking out of their palms to boot. He even has some high-tech exploding shuriken for blowing up machine gun wielding thugs. Not that he needs fancy weaponry – he can do just as well chucking broken down factory parts. A gear or an enormous rusty nail will puncture a punk’s face just as well, if thrown hard enough.
The only match for the uncompromising passion for justice of our law-enforcing bad boys is a comparably passionate and charmingly eccentric villain, who wants to bend reality to his twisted will. John McLean has the smarty-pants Hans Gruber, James Bond has the power hungry Blofeld, and Shiro Tanaka has Havlock, the mono-honorific, torture-happy playboy. He’s just as comfortable in a dusty warehouse jabbing a federal agent with a hot poker as he is schmoozing at a cocktail party at his marble mansion. He’s a man who loves his work, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t delegate. He has many tiers of lackeys to throw in Tanaka’s path, including a pair of ninjas he calls “the twins,” though I doubt they’re related any deeper than the fiber of their outfits. When the final showdown comes to pass between Tanaka and Havlock, Tanaka is battered and exhausted. He’s eradicated clan of spear chucking natives, wiped out a factory full of machine-gun henchmen, and he’s got two puncture wounds from a bamboo booby trap in his chest, but when he finally meets the big boss, he still brings the fire. Tanaka’s katana clashes with Havlock’s rusty machete with such force that it throws bright orange sparks. Their fight covers a lot of ground, from the abandoned factory floor, to the enormous machinery outside. They trade the upper hand back and forth so furiously it gives the viewer whiplash. Suddenly, it looks like the end for our champion. Havlock has run Tanaka through with a metal rod, and he is leaving a trail of blood as he scurries away. Havlock is following the blood soaked path, ready to show no mercy when the red drips stop at a door. Havlock stabs the door his machete, but there is no Tanaka! Tanaka bursts out of another door, surprise-party style, and Havlock falls into a vat of dirty factory water, then the movie stops. The end. What about Jennifer? I’m sure she’s fine.
What elevates Rage of Honor above the generic, forgettable maverick cop story is the charisma and physicality of Sho Kasugi. He moves on the screen with such confidence and specificity that each flip, kick, and leap is impressive and practical, never showy and superfluous, even if the circumstances are. It’s edifying watching him mow through henchmen by using both his muscle and his mettle with a clarity that comes from self-discipline and knowing what is just. That earnestness comes from Kosugi. It goes beyond his performance, into the attention he puts into every detail – from the choreography to his design of the one-of-kind weaponry. For all of the madcap campiness that surrounds him, Tanaka is a real, grounded character who is there to do what is right. It is the unflinching righteousness of the rule-breaking lawman that makes him the hero, the sense that there is a balance to justice that transcends regulations and protocol. Sho Kosugi has such gravitas, you trust him entirely to make that call.