The Last Dragon – 1985, Michael Schultz
The Last Dragon is a slice of 1980’s zeitgeist so pure, potent, and unspoiled by new millennium angst that your immune system may not actually be prepared for it. It’s too bright eyed, too uninhibited, and most of you will likely find your health adversely effected as a result of viewing this motion picture. Full disclosure; I was born in the 80’s, and yet even I, an 80’s native, was not exempt from these maladies; at 45 minutes into the picture I began to develop nausea, headaches, vomiting, and an innovative, fresh, new breakdancing routine which is certain to win me fly honeys and mad street cred when I deploy it in the Bay Area next spring. This is your final warning, turn back, or suffer the consequences the 1980’s hath wrought.
THE PLOT~ Leroy Green (Also known as “Bruce Leroy”- awesome) is a naïve, virtuous inner-city youth with a weasely, peach fuzz mustache and a mastery of Kung Fu that is ALMOST unrivaled throughout Harlem. Completely devoted to the martial arts as a way of life, Leroy is on a quest to become a Master and reach the highest level of Kung Fu Bad Assary; obtaining a mystical power called “The glow.” They never really explain “the glow,” but it’s kind of like The Force, I think. And it’s also really awesome, and Leroy needs it.
However, he is not without competition for Martial Arts supremacy, as a formidable rival soon appears in the form of Sho’Nuff, the Shogun of Harlem.
Sho’Nuff is a lanky, aggressive psychopath who leads your typical 1980’s Kung Fu street gang. They all wear costumes and have names like “Crunch” and “Cyclone,” so, you know, pretty standard stuff. Sho’Nuff is his own biggest fan, and he has a debilitating “Mirror mirror on the wall” type of narcissism that won’t allow him to rest until everybody knows he’s number one. Nuff makes it his mission to bully Leroy into a showdown that would determine just who is the top Kung Fu Fist in town, but Leroy won’t bite. He knows that fighting for the sake of ego isn’t gonna get anybody The Glow, so he has no interest in this proposed showdown. His refusal only serves to piss Sho off, and soon things escalate until Leroy has no choice in the matter. But first…!
…We have Eddie Arkadian, a manipulative gangster with aspirations of puppet-mastering Angela, a Cindi Lauper-esque popstar, into the limelight, so that he can vicariously soak up her glory, and enjoy the spoils of radio wave domination. His home made pop starlet isn’t really getting it done, however, so like any gangster worth his salt, Eddie decides to break some rules to make this shit happen. His plan? To Force local TV personality and youth culture Goddess Laura Charles (Played by Vanity!) to showcase his Client on her music variety show. However, when Laura refuses, Arkadian’s ire is provoked, gangster style, and he decides to play rough.
Through equal parts coincidence and shady machinations, all of our characters become increasingly entangled with one another until the movie hits critical mass in the third act, at which point fools get a full fledged 1980’s Kung Fu beat down dropped on their heads. Every American home should be stocked with a copy of this film at all times.
The Last Dragon is a Kung Fu movie, but it’s total entry level Kung Fu, a step down even from The Karate Kid. It definitely has it’s fight scenes, but the martial arts are probably the least important element in the equation if we really dig in and look at what makes this thing tick. Much more prominent here is the music; the soundtrack to The Last Dragon is a monster, there was clearly a lot of importance placed on keeping this thing grooving, start to finish, and they pulled it off. The jams are all traditional, stupid 80’s pop, and for many of us, that hits the “guilty Pleasure” region of our brains with Robin Hood like precision. Through the music of the era, the mindless optimism of the 80’s is at it’s most infectious, so get ready to smile against your will, you grumpy bastards. It’s also definitely a comedy, and The Last Dragon does not take itself very seriously.
It is, however, sometimes difficult to pinpoint where this movie crosses over from comedy into legitimate insanity. Some aspects of the film do feel at least marginally insane for real… My favorite scene falls into that grey area, it goes like this;
Following up on a tip from his previous Sensai, Leroy travels to a Fortune Cookie factory somewhere in the city to seek the tutelage of another Kung Fu Master, who he believes resides nearby. We arrive at the factory before Leroy does, and what we see is a screaming abomination steeped in ignorance and shame. Three Asian factory employees have engaged in the 1980’s tradition of dancing like mental patients on a side walk in full view of mankind and God alike, and in this instance; the song they are dancing to is one of the most unlistenably humiliating 80’s pop jams on the entire soundtrack, a song called Suki Yaki Hot Saki Sue, which, I learned from the credits, is performed by someone called Raw Dog…. Yikes, you guys.
LOOK AT WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THIS PICTURE
These three ultra nerds are just pedal-to-the-medal grooving with such belligerent intensity, I would call this “dancing with extreme prejudice.” The most glorious thing about it is that they appear to be totally convinced that what they are doing is so, so very bad ass, when in truth, nothing could possibly be lamer. The experience is intense, like french kissing a hydrogen bomb an instant before detonation, and it only get’s worse once our guy arrives. Leroy, himself about the biggest square on the American East Coast, pleads for an audience with the Master, and in response he is heckled and belittled ruthlessly by the three people least qualified to make fun of anybody, ever. Their insults surpass “suck” in how poorly conceived and executed they are, and at one point, one of these guys appears to mock Leroy for being Asian. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this yet, but Leroy is black, so this exchange is more than a little confusing, and if anyone other than Leroy had been subjected to such bush-league ridicule, they would have gone off on these bozos with brutal, beast like ferocity. They would be right to do so. If I could give you one illustration to help explain what it feels like to watch this scene, it would be this; this conflict is like the Tour DeFrance, only in this case, every participant has had the part of their brain that tells them how to ride a bike completely removed, and in it’s place, they were given an extra helping of whatever part of your brain tells you “You’re doing a great job, keep it up!”. It’s a massive tangle of humiliating failure that can’t stop fist pumping with hysterical pride over how good of a job it’s doing. I think this scene changed my life.
With that having been said, even these geeks are somehow likable, and actually, if we look at the rather large cast of characters in The Last Dragon, there’s not a turd in the bunch. All of our actors do a great job playing their parts, as well, especially Faith Prince, who plays Angela, the would-be-pop star. While Angela probably isn’t going to be anyone’s favorite character in the movie, Prince really bats for the fences and plays this vulnerable, multi-dimensional role fantastically. You don’t usually see this much talent in a flick of this caliber, and in fact, if you keep your eyes peeled you’ll spot celebrated actors William H. Macy and Chazz Palminteri hiding in there as well. They must not have been famous yet.
Aside from the excellent cast, entertaining premise, and catchy, shame-drenched, 80’s soundtrack, the rest of the production also fares pretty well when scrutinized. I find myself getting carried away when I talk about how great The Last Dragon really is, but I don’t feel compelled to hold back, if I’m being honest. It’s just such a fun movie. There are a lot of great sequences throughout the film, like when Leroy’s little brother is kidnapped up by Arkadian’s thugs, and “dances” out of the ropes they tie him up with, or when Laura shows Leroy a music video about The Glow featuring Bruce Lee, even though she literally only just learned that The Glow even existed seconds earlier on the car ride to her studio. The final confrontation between Sho’Nuff and Leroy is also freaking rad, and over all, The Last Dragon is just a really good time.
This is the sort that of movie that I, and so many of my peers, grew up with. If The Goonies was your jam when you were coming up, and if you were all about Short Circuit as a kid, then this movie could absolutely have held a spot in your regular VHS rotation. I’m legitimately saddened that I was already an adult the first time I saw it, and I vow to break this cycle of negligent parenting should I ever have children and/or decide to clone myself. Who knows how differently I could have turned out if I had seen this film before I got old and ruined my life! I think you should all watch this, if you can manage to suspend your cynicism for about ninety minutes, you could absolutely do worse.