As we take another spin around the films that came out in 1985, it’s hard to pass up an 80s cult classic like Michael Schultz‘ (or should I say Barry Gordy‘s) The Last Dragon. The 80s were an interesting time for martial arts films. Since Bruce Lee’s death in 1973, the genre lingered in the exploitation realm with no bona fide star to bring it to the forefront again. Grossing $26 million (33rd best of 1985), The Last Dragon was a hit despite opening opposite Friday the 13th Part V and Porky’s Revenge. Did it help resurrect the genre? Likely not. However, it helped keep the martial arts film in consciousness of moviegoers until the late 80s when stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal picked up the mantel.
So for the unlucky few who haven’t seen this one, this is how it shakes out. Local legend “Bruce” Leroy Green (Taimak – yes, that’s his name…and he isn’t the only singular name in the film) trains hard with his master, gives everything he’s got to take himself to the next level of consciousness as a student, to achieve the final level where the spirit takes over for the mind and guides the body without thought. Why do you ask would he want to do this? Well, whoever achieves this level will find him or herself engulfed in “the glow”, a power that, if in the hands of a true master, could create beauty that would be without bounds. But if it got into the wrong hands…well, I think you know where this is going. This struggles unfolds by happenstance when Leroy rescues popular club deejay and singer Laura Charles (former Prince protégé Vanity…see, another singular name) after refusing to help video arcade magnate Eddie Arkadian (Christopher Murney) by playing his girlfriend’s music video on her show.
As Arkadian attempts every trick in his devious book to persuade her to play the video, including letting her order a la carte at dinner, Leroy is there to thwart his efforts. So he decides to look for a little help to get Leroy out of the way. And who does he turn to for help? Only the Shogun of Harlem, Sho Nuff (Julius Carry), that’s who. He’s the meanest, prettiest, baddest mofo low down around this town and he has serious issues with Leroy who has turned down his attempts to battle in the past. In this situation he sees the opportunity to once and for all decide who is the master. Using Laura and Leroy’s little brother Richie (Leo O’Brien) as bait, Sho Nuff and Leroy finally come to blows and the ending is incendiary.
I loved this film as a kid, all of 10 when it was released in the spring of ’85. It had some funny parts (mostly courtesy of the character Johnny Yu played by Glen Eaton), it had the beautiful Vanity (Denise Matthews is her given name) and had some badass kungfu in it. What was there not to like, right? And I still love the film. I will say that it hasn’t necessarily held up that well over time. Taimak, while an asskicker in the martial arts department, is no actor. He is awkward and his performance is quite stilted, but his presence was there for one reason – to kung fu the hell out of his role. The charisma just isn’t there. I love that Christopher Murney is the heavy in this film. His turn as Hanrahan, the insane goalie, in my favorite movie, Slap Shot is as good as it gets and he brings that same energy to this film. And he looks the part of a crazy bastard, too.
Barry Gordy‘s participation in the film is one of the most interesting aspects. Gordy is the founder of Motown Records and it’s strange to see his name so prominently displayed on every piece of marketing for this film. You don’t see Michael Schultz‘s name hardly mentioned and when the final credits roll in the film, it’s Gordy‘s name as producer that is mentioned first (really, Schultz’ name is absent from the end credits). This film was used in large part to launch musicians, especially DeBarge, whose megahit single, ‘Rhythm of the Night‘, is played in its entirety in the film, appears on the soundtrack and was nominated for a Golden Globe for best song. The soundtrack is actually an awesome time capsule of pure 80s sound with Dwight David‘s theme song, Vanity‘s awful ‘7th Heaven’, Willie Hutch‘s awesome ‘The Glow’ and cuts by Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Gordy‘s son, Rockwell.
Rewatching this film gave me two shocks – first was seeing William H. Macy as Laura Charles’ lackey and Chazz Palminteri as one of Arkadian’s goons who is dispatched by Leroy. The Last Dragon is quite representative of the 80s – style over substance. One thing I will give to this film is that racial stereotypes that were so prevalent up to and beyond this time are largely absent so deserving credit to the filmmakers for that. While The Last Dragon doesn’t really hold up, it’s a fun film to revisit from time to time for all the things I’ve mentioned above.
There have been rumblings that the Wu Tang Clan’s own RZA is in talks to remake this film, which I think would be quite interesting. His martial arts homage Man with the Iron Fists received mixed reviews (I actually liked it, but I think I’m in small company). I’m almost exclusively against remakes of any kind, but it would be interesting to see the envelope pushed a little more with the martial arts and the removal of the advertising for Motown recording artists in this film. I guess we’ll see if that actually happens or not.
So if you haven’t seen it before or have forgotten about it and want to revisit it, here’s the trailer: