CAPSULE: THE LAST DRAGON (1985)

AKA Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: Taimak, Vanity, Julius Carry, Christopher Murney

PLOTLeroy Green (nicknamed “Bruce Leroy”), a kung fu student in Harlem, searches for a master to achieve “the glow,” while defending a music video hostess from an evil businessman and his army of toughs.

Still from The Last Dragon (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Last Dragon isn’t truly weird, but it’s unusual, quirky, and culty enough to earn an honorable mention, and the recent Blu-ray release gives us an excuse to recommend it to those inclined towards 1980s camp.

COMMENTS: The Last Dragon, a mix of blaxploitation and kung fu tropes performed in the innocent style of The Karate Kid, blooms with camp pleasures. A scene early in the picture embodies the curious aesthetic, which reflects urban audiences’ fondness for East Asian martial arts movies (Shaw Brothers pics were staples of Times Square grindhouses, where cheap chopsocky imports played next to peep shows). In one such theater, an awed “Bruce Leroy” watches Enter the Dragon (eating his popcorn with chopsticks!) among a multiracial crowd who howl at the screen. The disreputable patrons include a transvestite, a Rastafarian indulging in his sacrament, and a couple of teenagers who disrespectfully set up a boombox in the aisle and start breakdancing (!) In bursts giant Sho’Nuff (“the Shogun of Harlem”) and his retinue to challenge the skilled but humble Leroy to dishonorable combat.

Sho’Nuff, who says things like “kiss my Converse, sucka!” and dresses like a samurai pimp in an outfit stitched together from leftovers from a Michael Jackson music video, is The Last Dragon‘s batty heart and soul. Hero Bruce Leroy, who walks through Harlem streets wearing a conical bamboo hat and is mocked by his streetwise companions for being a “jive coolie,” doesn’t make nearly the same impression. Leroy is played by Taimak, who was hired for his considerable martial arts prowess rather than his inconsiderable acting talent. His lack of emotion is put to good use, however; his flat line readings make him a true ghetto outsider, someone who has devoted his life to absorbing stoic Asian philosophy rather than learning how to smooth talk girls. Which is bad luck for him, as the girl in his life turns out to be none other than 80s bombshell Vanity. Vanity doesn’t get to do much other than be endangered and pretty, but she undeniably lights up the screen. Other characters include Leroy’s wisecracking younger brother (who also has a crush on Vanity) and a gangsterish video game magnate with a wannabe pop star girlfriend (she’s a cross between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, with less talent than the two combined). You should also watch closely for bit parts by a young William H. Macy and Keisha Knight Pulliam (“The Cosby Show”‘s Rudy).

The Last Dragon was criticized for its predictable “damsel in distress” plot, but its crazy cartoonish characters and remarkable set pieces (including the aforementioned grindhouse showdown and a climactic battle where Sho’Nuff and Leroy glow while fighting) made it into a box office hit with younger audiences. Its legend only grew when it became a pay cable programming staple. Watch it for nostalgia, or to see what your parents thought was rad when they were teenagers. On a technical level its not great moviemaking, but as a guilty pleasure, it’s a blast.

The alternate title Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon naturally raises the question, who the hell is Berry Gordy? Turns out Berry was the founder of Motown records. He put up the dough for this one, and made sure that acts he controlled found their way onto the soundtrack (Debarge’s horrid “Rhythm of the Night,” featured prominently here, became a #3 Billboard charting hit). Why Gordy thought his name would bring kids into the theaters is a mystery. Vanity, thy name is Berry Gordy. (Well, in this case that’s confusing, but you get the idea).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…utterly wigged-out kung-fu disco extravaganza…”–Time Out London

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