The Film: 3/5
Decades before the birth of Marvel Studios, the Big Apple’s favorite illegitimate son Lloyd Kaufman launched his own line of gore-soaked cartoonish superhero action-comedies with The Toxic Avenger. Six years after the birth of Toxie, Kaufman decided to give him a future partner in upholding the law (by gouging the eyes out of anyone who would break said law) when he introduced a new breed of hero in a man who could turn Japanese like no other…. Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.
New York City detective Harry Griswold (Rick Gianasi) is nobody’s idea of a hero, but that all changes one evening while attending a kabuki theater presentation of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. A group of thugs lead by the crazed, blonde-bewigged Rembrandt (Thomas Crnkovich) busts into the auditorium and shoots up most of the cast and audience. One of the actors, as he lays dying, kisses Griswold full on the lips, and before you know, this unlikely member of New York’s finest finds himself running around in white pancake make-up and a kimono…. even though he was wearing neither when he arrived. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Griswold starts to experience strange transformations at the most inappropriate times, and the dead man’s granddaughter Lotus (Susan Byun) informs our hero that he has become the latest inheritor of the mantle of the Kabukiman, an ancient defender of justice who is fated to battle The Evil One for the fate of the world. With Lotus’ training, Harry comes to embrace his newfound powers just in time to foil a diabolical plot being hatched by the criminal corporate titan Reginald Stuart (Bill Weeden) and his Al Sharpton-esque puppet among the people, Reverend Snipes (Larry Robinson), to plunge the City That Never Sleeps into anarchy all for the purpose of profiting mightily from the ensuing chaos and destruction.
Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. is the rarest of Troma productions – a harmless trifle that was made at a time when the fiercely independent studio was attempting to create more mainstream fare acceptable for mass audience viewing. This was also the period that gave us the short-lived Toxic Crusaders cartoon series (a movie version was also put into development briefly at New Line Cinema). Though Kabukiman was written and filmed to include plenty of the gratuitous nudity and bloodshed Troma was justifiable famous for, Lloyd Kaufman, who directed the movie alongside his longtime collaborator Michael Herz, decided to create a sanitized PG-13 cut that could go into wider release than the likes of Chopper Chicks in Zombietown and Def by Temptation. Even in its uncut form, Kabukiman doesn’t feature nearly as many severed limbs and bouncing bare breasts as its Tromatic peers, but why in the hell would anyone want a watered-down Troma movie? Have you ever seen the R-rated cut of Terror Firmer? It’s pathetic. Kaufman and company work best when they work without rules and restrictions, even when the results hardly live up to the potential of the concepts that inspired their very existence.
Such is the case with Kabukiman, a feature that might seem tame and controlled when compared to The Toxic Avenger and its increasingly violent and inappropriate sequels but still has plenty of that unbeatable Troma spirit to make it stand tall among the studio’s stable of fearless freaks and gluttonous geeks. It never takes itself too seriously, but some of the actors thankfully do, and Kaufman and Herz manage to establish a comforting balance between the haphazard mythmaking at the center of the story and the Mad Magazine-level violence and comedy that surrounds it. When he’s in his Kabukiman persona, Rick Gianasi still plays the character of Harry Griswold as an overwhelmed slob just trying to perform his civic duty, albeit one that gets to battle the bad guys with an array of absurd abilities that include projectile chopsticks and sushi and a fan that can both deflect gunfire and produce destructive gusts of wind. Gianasi is good as the perfectly relatable Harry, and Susan Byun can kick her fair share of evil ass while looking absolutely beautiful as Kabukiman’s mentor and love interest Lotus. Bill Weeden, Larry Robinson, and Thomas Crnkovich have a blast supplying the movie with its trifecta of villainy.
Kaufman, who fleshed out his own story idea into a script with Andrew Osbourne (Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings) and Jeffrey W. Sass (Class of Nuke ‘Em High 2: Subhumanoid Meltdown), shot Kabukiman on location in New York with cinematographer Robert Paone (credited as Bob Williams), a former second assistant cameraman for Woody Allen. The director and his director of photography make wonderful use of the urban locations and keep every frame of the film busy with characters and activity and bathe the proceedings in bold colors that have faded in the print over time. The action sequences are more elaborate than we had come to expect from Troma at the time; we get some decently-staged martial arts battles that do their best to make the actors not look like rank amateurs at hand-to-hand combat, and there’s also a great fire stunt during a rooftop melee.
But it’s the crazy third act car chase where Griswold, dressed up like a clown for reasons I will leave you to discover personally, flees from Stuart’s goons first on a tricycle, then on a unicycle, and finally on foot. The chase plows through a child’s backyard birthday party and climaxes with an epic airborne flip that looked so magnificent when committed to film that Kaufman decided to work it into every single one of Troma’s in-house productions since, a budget-stretching technique that would make Roger Corman smile.
Troma’s track record with releasing titles from their prestigious catalog on Blu-ray has been a mixed bag thus far (Rabid Grannies will live in infamy forever), so it pleases me to report that the high-definition transfer of Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. they have supplied for its Blu debut is one of the company’s better efforts. The AVC encoded video has been framed in the 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio (though it was filmed in the 1.85:1 ratio) and it looks surprisingly clean and mostly deprived of print damage and lingering debris. The color scheme is muted for the most part, but it comes to life whenever Kabukiman goes into action and especially during the slimy final battle with The Evil One. Grain content has been kept at a moderate level that retains a fine filmic appearance. The only real drawback is that the HD upgrade tends to shine a mighty big spotlight on the flaws in the source elements that could not be removed or digitally scrubbed.
Since giving the movie a DTS-HD Master Audio mix would have cost more money that Troma considered the job being worth, what we are given instead is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track that makes sense seeing as how Kabukiman was released theatrically and on VHS and DVD with mono sound. Unfortunately, the years have not been too kind to the original audio and Troma didn’t find it necessary to perform any necessary clean-up work. Overall things sound just fine, but the dialogue often comes out tinny and the audio contains far too many distracting crackles and pops. No subtitles have been included.
Co-director Kaufman is all over the extra features on this disc, which is none too shocking given that he’s also the president of Troma and its most dedicated salesman and mascot (in the case of the latter, one who isn’t buried under a ton of special effects make-up). Before we get to the main menu, Kaufman hosts an introduction video (6 minutes) that functions as a brief Behind the Music-style spoof of tabloid documentary fodder focusing on Kabukiman’s rise and fall from fame.
Kaufman also holds court on a solo audio commentary where he leaves not a trace of dead air remaining as he discusses the project’s origins, shooting on a low budget in New York, the finished film’s place in the company’s history, and even does a little bit of self-promotion (listen to him talk about how one particular sequence was influenced by the 1976 version of Carrie, which was directed by Brian DePalma, whose first film The Wedding Party is now available from Troma!). It’s a solid, informative, and humorous track and it appears to be the only extra feature held over from previous home video releases of Kabukiman.
The rest of the supplements include an interview with leading man Gianasi (7 minutes) conducted by Kaufman during a Florida comic convention, the “Kabukiman’s Karaoke” (3 minutes) feature where an audience at another convention (or maybe it was the same convention – I honestly can’t tell) sings along to the movie’s annoyingly catchy theme tune, a “Kabukiman’s Cocktail Corner” episode (12 minutes) where the chopstick-wielding crime-fighter and Kaufman interview comedian Brian Quinn, “Stupid Moments in Troma History” (3 minutes), highlights from the 2015 Tromadance Film Festival (5 minutes), and the Kabukiman trailer (4 minutes). The trailer is presented full-frame and appears to have been sourced from a VHS copy.
Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. is Troma Films at their loudest, goofiest, and most unashamedly entertaining. In its uncut form, the movie is tons of mindless fun centered around a bumbling oaf of a reluctant superhero with powers rooted in a mythology based around Asian stereotypes. So…. screw you, political correctness. Such is the Troma way. The company has done a decent job bringing their beloved cult classic to Blu-ray with an excellent new video transfer and retaining the Lloyd Kaufman commentary from past releases, but the redundant and boring supplements and lack of an improved audio mix make this disc worth a marginal recommendation.