How many films about a rickshaw driver can you think of?
Well, chances are that unless it's your chosen specialist subject, American Rickshaw will probably increase your total by an either infinite amount, or somewhere in the region of fifty to one hundred percent.
Therein lies the first of many questions about Martin Dolman / Sergio Martino's 1990 film. Why make a film about a rickshaw driver? Was he hoping to start a new franchise along the lines of the American Ninja series by taking advantage of those who would watch anything with the magic word 'American' in its title?
It might make sense, although I can't recall rickshaws exactly being big in the 80s, unlike ninjas. There were no Teenage Mutant Rickshaw Drivers, after all.
Whatever the motivation, there's certainly a strong east-meets-west aspect to the production, not only in the hero's occupation but also the mysterious old Chinese woman who, as we will eventually learn, represents the forces of good in opposition to Donald Pleasance's televangelist, Reverend Mortom
If this combination suggests that Martino and company might have been drawing some inspiration from John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, which also starred Pleasance, and Big Trouble in Little China, these also seem somewhat odd choices for models given their relative lack of box office success at the time and somewhat belated cult recognition. (Thinking back to my own teenage years, I can remember catching up with Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York and The Thing, but never thinking about seeing Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness, either in the cinema or on home video; my loss.)
Regardless of its inspirations American Rickshaw emerges as a somewhat confused film, with the list of supporting characters including the televangelists son, who has a penchant for hiding behind one-way mirrors and filming people having sex; the stripper-cum-hooker who ensnares our hero, Scott, for one such film; Reverend Mortem's murderous minion, played by ex-Fists of Steel cyborg Daniel Greene, and Scott's friends and colleagues, including an amusingly / offensively camp gay rickshaw driver.
The plot meanwhile veers uneasily between the mundane and the magical, with Scott having to worry about his college exams one day and the fate of the world the next, with curious coincidences and mystical Mcguffins.
Though it might be argued that this serves to make the protagonist easier for us to engage and also places us in a position somewhat comparable to his – what exactly the hell is going on? – it proves hard to really care when athlete Mitchell Gaylord's suffers from a severe lack of charisma as Scott and Martino's direction is utterly flat and uninspired.
If American Rickshaw has any value it's as a time capsule of late 80s fashions, technologies – check out those mobile phones – and attitudes. Fine if you're a historian or sociologist but not so good if what you want is to be entertained.