The Last Dragon (1985)
Dir. by Michael Schultz
Starring Taimak, Vanity and Julius J. Carry III
An African-American martial artist, “Bruce Leroy” Green, must rescue a popular video DJ from a corrupt video game entrepreneur and his henchman, a rival martial artist/gang leader called the Shogun of Harlem.
Like The Beastmaster, this must have been one of those movies that was in constant rotation on basic cable in the early 1990s. I saw it enough times to still be able to remember several sequences, though I don’t think I’ve seen it since at least when I was in college at Carleton in the early 2000s.
This might be the weirdest movie I’ve rewatched for this project, which is saying something considering I’ve watched movies with video-game-playing starfighters, inflating henchmen, shrinking test pilots, armies transforming into pigs and pre-teens fighting Dracula. It’s a Blaxploitation kung fu musical, a genre mix that I never thought I’d be typing. It’s kinda pretty bad, but the bad parts aren’t actually what you’d expect given that genre and plot description.
For one, the martial arts action is surprisingly one of the strengths of the movie. The lead actor, Taimak, is an actual martial artist, holding black belts in multiple styles, and the fights were choreographed by famous karate competitor and instructor Ron Van Clief. Taimak isn’t much of an actor, and pretty much every scene where he had significant dialogue was cringe-worthy, but I definitely bought him as a fighter impressive enough to have been nicknamed “Bruce Leroy” by the community.
One thing I never really bought, however, was the movie’s villain, Eddie Arkadian. He’s a businessman who apparently made enough money from running video game arcades to set himself up as a wannabe mobster. We see him with henchmen, expensive penthouse apartments, and enough money to shoot elaborate music videos to jumpstart his girlfriend’s singing career, but never really get the sense that he’s really any sort of actual villainous threat. As such, his plot to kidnap Vanity’s character and force her to play the music videos doesn’t really cause much tension. I just couldn’t take him seriously.
The secondary villain, Sho’nuff the Shogun of Harlem, is actually much more credible of a threat. He’s clearly the leader of a street gang, and throws his weight around both metaphorically and literally from the moment he’s introduced. Unfortunately, the movie saddles him and his gang with absolutely ridiculous costumes for most of the movie: knockoff samurai robes and an afro tied into an imitation of a topknot.
Speaking of that, this movie resides in an interesting place on the border of cultural appropriation. When Sho’nuff is first introduced, crashing a rowdy theater screening of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, Leroy Green is watching the movie while wearing a Mandarin-collared jacket and a straw hat, and is eating popcorn with chopsticks. He idolizes Bruce Lee to the point of wearing the yellow track suit from Game of Death when teaching his class, bows to his consternated parents before dinner, and frequently spouts off vaguely Confucius-sounding words of wisdom.
However, I didn’t have the sort of negative reaction that I did to movies like Remo Williams. For one, there are multiple actual Asian characters in the film, played by Asian actors. While Leroy’s kung fu master initially appears to be the stereotypical “wise elderly martial artist,” he also pulls a movie-long practical joke on his pupil before flying off to visit his mother in Miami. Leroy also gets directly called out for his appropriation during the course of the movie. While attempting to complete his master’s futile “quest” by breaking in to a fortune cookie factory, Leroy’s attempts to talk his way past the employees are very quickly rebuffed by the Asian-American New Yorkers who work there. They are rightfully offended by him wearing what they see as a racist caricature of Asian clothing. He eventually resorts to bluffing his way past them by adopting a stereotypical “black” accent and clothing and pretending to be a pizza delivery man.
In fact, you could say that a major theme of the film is appropriation, assimilation and pretending to be something that you’re not. Instead of the stereotypical soul food restaurant, Leroy’s father is proud to run the only African-American-owned pizza place in the neighborhood. Eddie Arkadian and his girlfriend are both from rural upstate New York, pretending to be a mobster and pop star respectively. Sho’nuff is just a street thug who’s adopted samurai pretensions. Finally, it’s only when Leroy stops searching for an Asian master to train him, and accepts that he can be his own master without having to learn further from another culture, that he is able to finally defeat Sho’nuff.
This is far from a great film. The dialogue is pretty terrible, the villain is weak, and the romance is cringe-worthy. However, it’s also way too silly to really take seriously, and as a result I found myself actually enjoying a fair bit of it, especially the action parts. Not sure I’ll rewatch it again any time soon, but I’d watch it again before I rewatched Remo Williams.
-I called it a musical, though it’s not a musical in the traditional sense. There’s only one instance where a character actually breaks into song during the narrative. However, the music industry plays a heavy role in the plot (the love interest is a video disc jockey, and the villain’s girlfriend is an aspiring singer in the Cyndi Lauper mold), and full-length music videos get played more than once throughout the movie. Even the one actual musical song is a live performance given on-stage. There are also multiple montages throughout the movie, each set to a different 80s Motown artist. Of course, the movie was produced by Motown Records head Berry Gordy, so the fact that the movie’s essentially an MTV set with breaks for fight scenes makes a bit of sense.
-Every time the movie threatened to get a little serious, it would undercut itself with something supremely silly. Most notably, there’s a scene literally taken wholesale from Blazing Saddles, in which the villain auditions a series of thugs and murderers to be his new henchmen. It ends with one of them headbutting a table in half while barking like a dog.
-One thing I found much sketchier this time around was Leroy’s little brother, who’s maybe fifteen tops, and is obsessed with Vanity’s DJ. He repeatedly talks about getting her to fall in love with him, and refers to her as “his woman” despite the fact that they’ve never met. He comes off as way more stalkerish now than I think they’d intended at the time.
-There’s a brief cameo by an almost unrecognizably-young William H. Macy.