Back in the mid 1980s there was a rise in what you would call the “Oriental Hollywood action movie.” Despite his death in the ’70s the kung fu films of Bruce Lee had left their mark and this was to receive a revival with films such as The Karate Kid, The Golden Child, and Big Trouble In Little China. Meanwhile we were seeing the rise of the 2nd wave of martial arts stars with Jackie Chan starting to make waves and a Belgian known as Jean-Claude Van Damme was making his first forays as an action star with No Retreat. No surrender, while a lumpy idiot of an aikido instructor known as Steven Segal was waiting in the wings.
But out of all these film there was one film that was more crazed, ludicrous and out there, mixing the martial arts, blaxploitation, and pop music video genres into a big steaming mess. For this week’s edition of the Sunday Cult film Corner, i give to you THE LAST DRAGON.
THE LAST DRAGON was directed in 1986 by Michael Schulz, who was pretty much your TV/straight to video director gun for hire (credits include Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Scavenger hunt, and bustin’ Loose) and was produced by Berry Gordy, who is best known as the founder of Motown Records. The main character of the film is Leroy Green who was played by real life martial art expert Taimak. In the film he is often referred to as “Bruce Leroy,” in a direct allusion to Bruce Lee. Leroy is a student in New York, who hopes to master the techniques of “the glow,” thereby becoming a great a martial arts master.
In his quest to under and achieve the secrets of “the glow,” he must defeat an evil martial arts expert known as Sho’nuff, who calls himself “The Shogun Of Harlem,” and whose gang terrorizes the local neighbourhood. He also ends up saving (and falling for) the presenter of a music video show who is being threaten by a gangster to play his girlfriend’s music videos. All the while he continues his training and teaching, so that he can become “the master.”
There’s a strong air of the ludicrous about THE LAST DRAGON. most of this is down to the two main protagonists. Leroy has the distant mannerisms of an innocent abroad, looking like a Chinese peasant, wearing oriental clothing and even a Chinese straw hat in downtown New York. he even looks and speaks like early ’80s Michael Jackson, with evident shyness and halting delivery. He does jackson style yelps and “whoo hoo!”s when he does his fighting action stuff! Meanwhile Sho’nuff looks more like he should be an extra in Mad Max 2, with his crazy cape costume, bug eyes and wild hair (“Im’a gonna git you sucker!”). He looks absolutely mental and is clearly the best thing in the film, as Julius J. Carry III chews up and steals every scenes that he’s in. Out of the other actors, everyone here does their job albeit not spectacularly. Watch out though for an early appearance by William H Macy as a gopher producer on the video TV show.
THE LAST DRAGON was shot completely on location in New York and the film does seem to catch the melting pot of life and attitudes in NYC in the mid’ 80s. Chinese, blacks and Hispanics works and live cheek by jowl, while the film definitely catches the flavour of the hip hop and dance pop scenes of the city. And it certainly catches the flavor of the styles and looks of the ’80s – power suites, shoulder pads, movies videos that ape Prince and Cyndi Lauper. Definite cheese alert here. Meanwhile the obvious pop culture references to Bruce Lee and enter the dragon are aplenty. His images infect several scenes in the film with characters in the film finding themselves copying key moments (such as the elderly Chinese man in the movie theatre).
ironically the thing that falls down the most in THE LAST DRAGON is the actual martial arts scenes themselves, which are too few and far between and often lack the thrill and energy of other films from that time. But in a weird way it doesn’t really matter as THE LAST DRAGON clearly doesn’t take itself seriously in any meaningful sense of the word. Many of the scenes make you laugh out loud, sometimes unintentionally.
It’s well-known that African American culture was clearly impressed upon by the kung fu genre and took to a cultural exchange between the two spheres in a big way. Whether it was the popular spectacle of the kung fu theater of the 1970s, or music Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting and Wu Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), to anime series such as Afro Samurai and Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog. The idea of the cool, zen master who was able to control his actions and his environment through iron will, while also kicking the ass of all those who threaten him. For many in black culture these facets were assimilated to provide an image of the black kung fu action hero. THE LAST DRAGON, despite its inherent cheesiness and cartoon style narrative, can definitely been seen as a worth addition to the canon of the African american/martial arts genre.