The Last Dragon (1985) / Action-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, some sensuality and language
Running time: 109 min
Cast: Taimak, Vanity, Christopher Murney, Julius Carry, Faith Prince, Leo O'Brien, Mike Starr, Jim Moody, Glen Eaton, Ernie Reyes Jr.
Cameo: Keshia Knight Pulliam, Chazz Palminteri, William H. Macy
Director: Michael Schultz
Screenplay: Louis Venosta
Review published November 13, 2008
A jumbled mix of various genres popular among African-American moviegoers, Motown king Berry Gordy lent his name and label's music to this film that blends blaxtploitation, martial arts, and music videos into a lowbrow but entertaining action-comedy that has gained a cult status among action fans and 1980s aficionados alike. Taimak (The Book of Swords, Night Class) stars as a young African-American Harlemite who is a devout student of martial arts. He lives kung fu, breathes kung fu and is so entrenched in the ways of the kung fu warrior, he stands out in his predominantly Black community for his lack of hipness and Asian-tinged wardrobe (he even eats his movie popcorn with chopsticks). He is sent out into the world from his master teacher to reach the final level of his training to become a true kung fu master, involving a golden amulet and a master named Som Dom Goy. Meanwhile, his quest is detoured by constant disruptions by a neighborhood bully, Sho'Nuff (Carry). who, along with his gang of thugs, are terrorizing the neighborhood. Leroy also gets embroiled with an even bigger bad guy, amoral record producer Eddie Arkadian (Murney, Barton Fink), whose quest to get his girlfriend's video played on the hottest music show on TV hosted by singer/VJ Laura Charles (Vanity, 52 Pickup) causes them to get physical. Leroy becomes Laura's reluctant bodyguards, and the sparks between them suggest that they might have something more going on.
I must admit up front that I don't consider The Last Dragon to be a good enough film that will entertain many outside of its camp-loving target audience. speaking as someone who actually is in this group, a lover of kung fu flicks and 1980s kitsch, it has long been one of my favorite popcorn films from my days as a youth seeing it in a theater with my friends. Although there are a few serious moments to be found in the film, the emphasis delivered in the script by Louis Venosta (Bird on a Wire) is on the goofy side, knowing that transplanting your typical Chinese revenge kung fu premise to the inner city African-American neighborhood requires a bit of fantasy elements, namely in the fact that nearly everyone there is a burgeoning kung fu master. Veteran director Michael Schultz's (Sergeant Pepper, Car Wash) involvement is a blessing, as he is comfortably familiar enough in all of the various styles to keep control of the reins from beginning to end, knowing that ultimately all anyone wants and expects out of The Last Dragon is an entertaining time.
Interestingly, the film was originally released as Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon, but that has the supposition that audiences might be drawn to the film because of the Motown music. Though there are some catchy tunes in the film, only DeBarge's "Rhythm of the Night" would emerge as any sort of hit, pretty much negating using the longtime music man's name to promote a film that didn't have a great deal in terms of great music. Motown Records wasn't at the forefront of pop music during this period, and the lack of big talent (save Stevie Wonder) is evident from the would-be hit makers on the soundtrack. This is also in good part due to the mid-1980s emphasis on synth and drum machines, causing most musical acts in R&B of the time to sound pretty much alike (Michael Jackson and Prince wannabes without the musical vision or talent).
Taimak never really caught on as any kind of action star, which is a bit of a quandary given his good looks, physical make-up and athletic abilities. Granted, he may not have the intensity of a Bruce Lee or the acrobatic ability of a Jackie Chan, but he's perfectly cast as the shy but noble reluctant warrior who finds the strength within himself to overcome the obstacles that come his way. Former Prince protégé Vanity compliments him well in the looks department, and has a sensuality that translates well to the screen, though she's not even close to being a great singer, and perhaps even less so a great actress. The real scene stealer is Julius Carry (shockingly, his first and only role) as the supreme badass Sho'Nuff, the Shogun of Harlem, who exudes a great deal of menace while giving the performance just enough over-the-top edge to make it as humorous as the rest of it. Christopher Murney gets in his share of scenes as the heavy Eddie Arkadian, though at no point does he come across as anything more than a Danny Devito-esque svengali with a Napoleon complex.
The kung fu aspects of the film aren't exactly enthralling, but the build-up to the final showdown between Sho'Nuff and Leroy does make their battle electric, almost literally. The Eddie Arkadian subplot is a bit of a distraction from this momentum, but it does provide the impetus for all of the rest of the material. Faith Prince (Dave, Picture Perfect) gives an underappreciated performance as a Cyndi Lauper-ish singer whose wish to be a successful entertainer struggles with her disdain for Eddie's strong-arm tactics as her handler. In addition to Carry's dynamite presence, Leo O'Brien (Rappin') scores up the most laughs as Richie, Leroy's hipper younger brother, who becomes a mentor of sorts on what it takes to be cool. Also much overlooked are the scenes of Leroy's family life, and of the family business (the finest black-owned pizza parlor in Harlem) which are almost pleasant and amusing enough to wish that there could have been a sitcom done just about them, though Keshia Knight Pulliam from "The Cosby Show" would have been pulling double duty.
The Last Dragon is dated to a certain extent, but really, that's the main appeal. If you're nostalgic for the times when break dancing, boom boxes, arcade games and music videos were all the rage, there aren't many that can entertain the action movie buff as well as The Last Dragon.
©2008 Vince Leo