Title: The Last Dragon (1985)
Director: Michael Schultz
Cast: Taimak, Vanity, Julius J. Carry III, Faith Prince, Leo O’Brien
Back in 1984, John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid (1984) was a huge success in theaters; it told the story of Daniel LaRusso, an American kid who has trouble adjusting to his new neighborhood. His school mates make fun of him, bullies have a field day kicking his ass around. Fortunately, Daniel befriends the magical Mr. Miyagi, a Japanese old man who teaches Daniel the ways of Karate and how to confront his own demons. The Karate Kid was such a hit that it spawned three other sequels after it. It also inspired producer Berry Gordy to make an all black version of The Karate Kid, which turned out to be the very eclectic, funny and entertaining flick called The Last Dragon. Both films share similarities, both are about young dudes trying to harness the powers of Karate, both have old oriental guys teaching these youngsters martial arts, but while The Karate Kid is more of a drama, The Last Dragon differs in that it’s not trying to be a serious film at all, The Last Dragon actually embraces it’s ‘cheesetastic’ roots and swims in them effortlessly.
Here’s a film that mixes Kung Fu Masters, Television Dance Shows, Vanity, Music Videos, Disco Dancing, Pizza Parlor’s, Gangsters, Music Producers, Piranha’s and Break Dancing! Oh and let’s not forget the wonderful world of fortune cookie making! So as you can see, The Last Dragon is very different in tone to The Karate Kid. Yet at the same time, it delivers that “believe in yourself” message that’s so popular in cinema; the idea that once you start believing in yourself you can achieve anything. In contrast with The Karate Kid, The Last Dragon sends its message in a more lighthearted manner, with characters that don’t take themselves too seriously, hell, the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, everything unfolds in a goofy, fun vibe. Michael Schultz, the films director (a.k.a. the guy who directed Krush Groove (1985)) mentions in the dvd commentary that he wanted the film to be cartoony, which is pretty obvious when we take one look at the films main characters for example, one of the villains is this guy who walks around with football gear, and calls himself “The Shogun of Harlem”! So don’t expect a serious drama, in fact, expect the complete opposite, a cartoonish homage to Shaw Bros. Kung Fu movies. For example, the film opens up with Taimak in a dojo, throwing some Kung Fu moves, which is the traditional way in which many Shaw Bros. film started out, with a Kung Fu master displaying some moves as the credits roll on screen. Also, the whole thing with the glowing hands comes straight out of The Five Fingers of Death (1972). There's also direct homages to Bruce Lee films, so while it's a parody, the film knows exactly where its coming from.
Taimak, the twenty something actor who starred as Bruce Leroy, had never done a film before this one; he basically learned how to act while making this film. He was obviously chosen because of his martial arts abilities more than his acting abilities, yet, that raw, rookie naiveté that Taimak exudes through his performance is exactly what was needed for the character of Bruce Leroy, a nerdy kung fu freak who is obsessed with all things Bruce Lee, so much so that he dresses in Chinese clothing and eats his pop corn with chop sticks while watching Enter the Dragon (1973) at the local theater. Yet, even though the guy is extremely skilled in martial arts, he’s not very skilled with the ladies. Leroy doesn’t even know how to make a move on ‘Laura’, the television host of a dance show called ‘7th Heaven’. Laura was played by 80’s pop star ‘Vanity’, whom some of you might remember from her role in the over the top action film ActionJackson (1988), where she starred alongside Carl Weather’s as a junky looking to get rehabilitated. On The Last Dragon she plays the role of a VJ who gets muscled around by a music producer who wants to make her play one of the music videos he produced. If she doesn’t play his video, she dies!
This whole element about a music producer trying to muscle his star into fame is the part of the film that some people felt got in the way of the film. Some feel the movie might have been just fine had it just been about Bruce Leroy looking for his inner glow. The whole musical thing is probably there because this film is produced by Berry Gordy, a Motown producer who sometimes produced films as well. Actually, the official title of the film is Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, so it’s his film. By the way, I think this might be the only time where the producers name is placed on the screen as part of the films title. Gordy also produced The Wiz (1978), the all black cast version of The Wizard of Oz. But most of the time, Berry Gordy would produce these awesome Motown songs that got used in film soundtracks all the time. Speaking of film soundtracks, the one for The Last Dragon is extremely 80’s! I mean, it doesn’t get more 80’s than DeBarge singing “Rhythm of the Night” now does it? Well, if that doesn’t get your nostalgic juices flowing, how about kung fu masters who busts into movie theaters carrying boom boxes and spontaneously break dancing? Ha! The movie also has its own theme song called ‘The Last Dragon’, by the way, this song was nominated for worst song of the year at the Razzies, but damn, I haven’t been able to take it out of my head for the past few days! Vanity sings a tune called '7th Heaven' but by god it's terrible! It was also nominated for worst song of the year at the Razzies.Still, I gotta be honest, for the few minutes that Vanity is on screen performing this song, I couldn't take my eyes off the screen, I watched the whole thing with morbid glee. So expect a movie with a super 80’s vibe and a soundtrack filled with hits from that era, and one or two songs made specifically for the movie.
One of the more entertaining aspects of The Last Dragon is its main villain, Sho Nuff, The Shogun of Harlem, played by Julius J. Carry III. The guy looks like a clone made out of Busta Rhymes and Samuel L. Jackson’s dna. In fact, Busta Rhymes actually dressed like The Shogun of Harlem in the music video for his song ‘Dangerous’. At one point in the video Busta actually quotes this film! And even more of a concidence is the fact that Samuel L. Jackson was actually going to play this character in a remake of The Last Dragon that was in the works, but nothing ever came of that remake, I guess it stayed in development hell. Sho Nuff almost steals the film from Taimak, if Taimak’s character didn’t eventually find his glow and become “The Master”, which is a pretty cool scene in my book. The climactic battle was what I loved the most about the film when I watched it as a kid because both the villain and the hero start glowing as they fight, and their punches create these sparks! It made for a cool visual; by today’s standards these visual effects are tame, but for me, the idea, and the visual still retains its charm. Bottom line with The Last Dragon is that, yeah it’s silly, yeah it’s cheesy, but it’s fun cheese, recommend it for that.
Rating: 3 out of 5