Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, March 27, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: The Last Dragon (1985)

When I was in middle school, my good friend and future podcast co-host JD mentioned a movie he saw once. He said it was about a black martial artist named Bruce Leeroy who eventually gets so good at kung-fu, he starts to glow. I thought for sure he was just making shit up. In time, I would discover that this was, in fact, a real movie. “The Last Dragon” is a fan favorite with an odd pedigree. It was one of Motown executive Berry Gordy's few forays into movie making. Gordy had such faith in the film that he put his name above the title. It starred two actors with one word names, non-actor martial artist Taimak and Price protegee Vanity. Directed by “Cooley High” and “Car Wash's” Michael Schultz, the film would attempt to fuse several different genres. The result did okay at the box office in 1985 but wouldn't really get its dues until becoming a cult classic years later.

Harlem youth and Bruce Lee devotee Leroy Green is training with a martial artist master. After learning everything the master offers, the old man sends a still eager-to-learn Leroy in search of a new master. Instead, Leroy stumbles upon two very different people. The first of which is Sho'Nuff, a gang leader and kung-fu master who proclaims himself the Shogun of Harlem. The second of which is Laura Charles, the host of a local musical variety show. When Laura refuses to play the music videos of a would-be music producer/amateur crime boss, she incurs his criminal wrath. Through a series of coincidence, Leroy Green becomes Laura's bodyguard. He soon discovers that the master he seeks is within.

What kind of movie is “The Last Dragon” trying to be? The film is a homage to seventies kung-fu films. Kung-fu fighting appears constantly throughout the film. The hero seeks self-discipline and enlightenment through mastery of the martial arts. Many of the cliches of the genre – the wise sensai, the arrogant rival, ninja outfits and nun-chucks – put in appearance. And this is excluding the obvious Bruce Lee worship on display. Yet “The Last Dragon” is also an eighties New Wave pseudo-musical. The synth-driven funk/soul music appears in nearly every scene. Laura's role as a music host makes room for several full length music videos, including El Debarge's “Rhythm of the Night.” These two ideas don't have much in common and yet “The Last Dragon” slings them together.

This weirdo fusion is also an attempt to create a new kind of blaxploitation movie for the eighties. In what is one of many likely intentional homages to “Black Belt Jones,” “The Last Dragon” features a gang of mob enforcers attempting to intimate an inner city kung-fu dojo. Yet the film was made too early into the eighties to be a throwback to a genre that was only a decade old. Instead, “The Last Dragon” has more in common with “Breakin'” than “Dolemite.” There's kids break dancing in a movie theater. One lengthy sequence is devoted to a group of Chinese guys rapping and hip-hopping. I'm not sure if this was intentional on the filmmaker's behalf but the way “The Last Dragon” freely mixes ethnic backgrounds, the film was seemingly made for a more multicultural era.

In addition to everything else it's trying to be, “The Last Dragon” is also a romance. The singularly named leads have the strangest sort of chemistry. Taimak's performance is charming in the most awkward way possible. His delivery is stiff. He approaches every scene with a fresh-faced sense of childlike innocence, no matter the context. It's an odd performance, technically unsound but nevertheless endearing. As Laura, Vanity is more comfortable on-screen. She plays the part as savvy and cynical. This makes her an ideal counterpart to the naif-like Leroy. The scene where the two first kiss, after Vanity shows Takma a musical montage of Bruce Lee, is strangely disarming. The whole movie is kind of like that.

Then again, “The Last Dragon” is essentially a live action cartoon. The villains are all varying degrees of ridiculous. Eddie Arkadian is the most exaggerated version of an unhinged mob boss that I've ever seen. His much younger girlfriend starts in a series of music videos that are too goofy and gaudy, even by eighties MTV standards. Among the hired goons Arkadian employs is a man with a chain around his neck that acts like a dog. These are colorful characters but Sho'Nuff is by far the most outrageous, memorable bad guy in the film. Maybe the most memorable character in the film period. Julius Carry III – who seemingly took some pointers from Ruby Ray Moore in “Disco Godfather” – yells and mugs, tearing up the screen. Dressed in a series of bizarre costumes, he's as fabulous and nutty as possible. If nothing else, he's a worthy adversary to Bruce Leroy.

The kung-fu in “The Last Dragon” is also pretty good. Say what you will about Takma's acting ability but the kid knew how to kick some ass. The scene where he drops in on Arkadian goons, rescuing Laura, he displays an impressively smooth, almost dance-like technique. The final fight between Sho'Nuff and Leroy is also nicely choreographed. The hero gets tossed through walls, kicked repeatedly, head shoved in water. Yes, Leroy suddenly realizing the secret to the Glow just when he needs it most is pretty lazy writing. Then again, that's the kind of thing that happens in kung-fu movies.

The soundtrack in “The Last Dragon” is not as awesome as it wants to be. The title theme and “The Glow” are catchy enough but both suffer from super corny melodies. Maybe that's fitting, considering “The Last Dragon” is kind of corny too. To call the film a blaxploitation flick isn't entirely accurate. That actual genre was entirely extinct by 1985. There's very little exploitative about this one. Yet “The Last Dragon” is too oddball a combination of divergent influences not to be at least a little lovable. The script herks and jerks according to its own weird whims. Like Takma's odd lead performance, the film is deeply flawed and shouldn't work. Despite this, the final product ends up being rather charming. [7/10]

[X] Afros or Sideburns
[] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[X] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act*
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang

*The music video show is essentially a filmed night club act.

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