Editor’s note: Rental Rehab is pleased to welcome back guest reviewer Joshua, who readers may recall as the author of the recent popular review of the seminal American film Roadhouse.
Episode: “Bushido”; Season 2, Episode 9
Originally aired: Nov. 22, 1985
Director: Edward James Olmos
Writer: John Leekley
Nominated for an Emmy Award: Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition for a Series (dramatic underscore) – Jan Hammer
It’s difficult to remember, but there was a moment when the entire free world wanted to be South Florida. And not just any part of South Florida, but that space within the decaying Art Deco multi-culti confines of the state known as South Beach. For maybe a season and a half, Miami Vice ruled television and we were all riding on Don Johnson’s blazing white Armani coattails. Even now, the Jan Hammer theme music makes my heart beat a little faster.
What we have to ask ourselves is: How could this formula possibly have been improved? In 1985, there was only one answer, and that answer was ninjas.
“Bushido” is not the best Miami Vice episode ever shot – there is a marked lack of dead prostitutes, drama with Sonny Crockett’s ex-wife, or Lamborghini Countachs – but it is memorable for its focus on the character of Lieutenant Martin Castillo. Castillo as played by Edward James Olmos was always the spindly crow to Don Johnson’s puffy, parroty Crockett. He’s the show’s cultural connection to the older police procedurals, real law and order shows like Dragnet (1967-70) and Adam 12 (1968-75), and represents a pre-Vietnam War idea of civil authority. That is, the police as a bulwark of reason and integrity against a wave of terminal license, symbolized on the show by the endless pallets of cocaine flooding the country through it southern borders.
Castillo speaks quietly, is sparing with his eye contact, and seems divorced from the random passions that seem to guide Crockett’s approach to every law enforcement problem. But in this episode, we learn that Castillo isn’t just an empty shell of a man animated by duty, he is a a Latino Samurai who made his bones in Cambodia in the Golden Triangle. When a drug bust goes bad, he recognizes a CIA fixer from from his past – Jack Gretsky – as the big problem. How close are these two men? Well:
You remember that night in the hills of Mae Sa? The Hmong warlord sent his assassins, and they had us cornered in a temple, like this one? And we lay there waiting in the dark, and the air was so thick and ancient you couldn’t breath it.
And when they came we stood in the middle of the floor, leaning with our back to each other. It was our swords against their swords. We should’a died then.
Castillo and Gretsky aren’t just close, they’re ninja close. The kind of masculine relationship that is only a memory, now. See, kids, 25 years ago it was still possible to describe an active duty police detective as being a veteran of the Vietnam War. Crockett himself had been through two tours. And if you’d been in the ‘Nam and seen The Shit, you knew: everything in Apple Pie America was a lie. There were two kinds of bad-ass that came out of that war. One was the over-torqued Rambo type, and he had his movies, and appealed to a certain audience with their pick-ups, NRA memberships, and what-not. But the other was badder still, the veteran who had taken a page out of the Eastern Warrior’s play book and lived to tell the tale. In Reagan’s America, the ninja was the ultimate purveyor of personal honor, integrity, and bloody bad-assedness. [e.g. Enter the Ninja (1981)] And the only man a real ninja can trust is, you guessed it, another ninja!
After killing Gretsky – his best friend – for Honor! – Castillo is bound by duty to protect Gretsky’s family from parallel teams of CIA and KGB agents. That’s right, both intelligence organizations want his ex-KGB wife, and it is a testament to those ancient Cold War anxieties that writer John Leekley thought it realistic to depict a team of Russian agents openly speeding around South Florida with complicated machine guns, assaulting police officers.
What follows is not what you’d expect from the Miami Vice franchise. The action moves slowly, allowing ample time for Castillo to instruct his dead friend’s young son in the way of the Samurai. While Crockett and Tubbs are lost somewhere in the keys, befuddled by their incomprehension of true Bushido, it falls to Castillo to dispatch most of the KGB team with a fucking katana! That’s right, the very blade that belonged to his dead best friend, which he is now honor-bound to present to the guy’s lumpy kid but must first consecrate with the blood of his foes!
Castillo faces off against the last Russian agent, Surf (a really inconspicuous handle, played wide-eyed by David Rasche ), in a grove of palm trees. Aficionados of the genre will recognize the allusion to all those chanbara sword fights in bamboo forests (e.g. Dai-bosatsu tôge[The Sword of Doom](1966)), except that Surf is carrying some kind of drum-magazine-fed assault weapon – you don’t want to take Surf lightly, at one point he drives a Cadillac with his feet. As he prepares to be gunned-down, Castillo strikes a pose with his sword that can only be described as Awesome, but then the tardy Crockett and Tubbs finally show up to take matters in hand with a line that must have stripped years from Don Johnson’s already perishable career:
Surf’s up, PAL!
There are so many things about this show that don’t quite work at a remove of 25 years. All of the interior scenes are shot in tiny, cramped rooms against what look like hastily painted scrims with poor light – nothing like the post-production digital color saturation we’ve come to expect from a show like CSI: Miami, the show’s one obvious spiritual heir. The much vaunted costumes of Don Johnson now look seedy and foolish, like the myriad aging loafers who haunt the bars of South Florida on school nights. These days, the only people who use cocaine are mere children, hipsters being ironic, and Paris Hilton – sadly – because she doesn’t know any better. We hate the Russians out of habit, mostly – so many of them are so rich, now – and they pale in comparison to the very real operations of Osama bin Laden.
In America we still grapple with Vietnam, even though we’ve had many such wars since. We’ve grown used to seeing special forces soldiers on television – and they all look a lot bigger than Dean Stockwell, doing his best to portray the supposedly peerless CIA agent Jack Gretzky. We know about the CIA now – they torture their prisoners, as we always claimed of the KGB. The people of Japan lost their mystical superiority when their economy cratered, and one shudders to imagine Mister Myagi in the Octagon with Randy Couture. Ninja, we know now, aren’t real.
But Edward James Olmos had something in mind when he directed this episode. For true believers I recommend Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu [Samurai Rebellion] (1967). Masaki Kobayashi’s masterpiece depicts a maze of duty and grief to which Olmos owes a great debt for the themes and plot he struggles to articulate in this episode.
For those of you who are not true believers, I humbly suggest Robert Pinsky’s poem “Samurai Song” (2001). Brief (but too long to quote here), it is a helpful consolidation of what Olmos may have been getting at.
 Mae Sa is in Thailand. Dean Stockwell gets around.
 Castillo tells the boy an extended story featuring a samurai named Tosshin. Thus far, I have been unable to learn whether this story is based on a particular historical event, or has just been borrowed from the Tekken video game franchise.