The Last Dragon
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Urban black culture meets Asian martial arts philosophy meets music video glamor in The Last Dragon, a colorful, comic, self-aware reworking of a classic Hong Kong martial arts odyssey in contemporary New York. Call it a Motown martial arts movie seeped in New York urban culture and eighties color and music.
Real-life karate black belt Taimak plays earnest young martial arts student Leroy Green, nicknamed Bruce Lee-roy by the locals. He models himself on Bruce Lee, dresses in a modest black robe and an Asian straw hat, eats popcorn with chopsticks, spouts fortune cookie wisdom, and talks in the formal, polite manner of screen Asians who speak English in American movies without contractions (it's always "do not," never "don't"). Needless to say, he stands out amidst the street smart characters of his Harlem neighborhood and his hip kid brother (future rapper Leo O'Brien, founding member of The Sugarhill Gang) thinks he's just weird. Music video TV host and singer Laura Charles (Vanity), however, thinks he's perfectly charming, especially after he saves her from mob-wannabe thugs not once but twice. Meanwhile a trash-talking peacock of a martial arts gangleader named Sho'nuff, the self-proclaimed Shogun of Harlem (Julius J. Carry III), spends the film trying to pressure Leroy into a fight to prove once and for all that he's the master.
"The rest of the plot, which has to do with Vanity's resisting gangland pressure to play rotten videos in her dance club, is too idiotic to bear explaining," wrote Janet Maslin in her review for The New York Times, which was indicative of the reviews of the day. Arriving just as hip-hop, rap, break-dancing, and graffiti art were getting a spotlight in scrappy little films with serious cultural undercurrents like Breakin' and Beat Street (Schultz himself would make Krush Groove a year later), The Last Dragon was a fun-loving movie fantasy, pure and simple. Its mix of action, comedy, music, dance, revenge movie, and spiritual odyssey was not well reviewed but it was embraced by audiences, who turned it into a small-scale hit. Decades later, it remains a cult film with passionate fans.
The complete title of the film on the poster and on the screen is Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon, giving authorial credit to the Motown mogul who produced the film and provided the soundtrack. But it was director Michael Schultz, one of the most successful African-American filmmakers of the 1970s and 1980s (among his credits are Car Wash, Greased Lightning, and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), who nurtured the project after reading the original script by Louis Venosta. A dancer by profession and a big Bruce Lee fan, Venosta bemoaned the lack of black heroes on the screen. "Why don't you go write one," his girlfriend suggested, and he did.
"When I first read the script of The Last Dragon, it was one of the few projects that I knew immediately was going to be successful," recalled Schultz years later. "Because in the history of cinema, there had been very few black heroes and [with] a young black hero and gorgeous people, I knew kids would see this film over and over and over again." He liked the presentation of a modest African-American hero who follows a code out of old-school Hong Kong martial arts movies and he saw the film as a "living cartoon," both spoofing and celebrating genres and cultures. There's a trio of Chinese fortune-cookie entrepreneurs who appropriate urban black culture, a small-time Italian video game parlor businessman who acts like a mad dog of a mafia kingpin, and a rogue's gallery of thugs who could have come out of a comic book. And the inspiration of Bruce Lee is celebrated all through the film. There's a scene in a grindhouse theater where a raucous audience cheers on a screening of Enter the Dragon, clips from Fists of Fury and The Chinese Connection, a Bruce Lee poster in Leroy's room, a scene with Leroy in a yellow jumpsuit with black stripes right out of Game of Death, and of course the nickname: Bruce Lee-roy.
The challenge was casting a leading man. Established stars like Jim Kelly and Ron van Clief were too old for the part, so Schultz had open casting calls looking for a black martial artist between the ages of 20 and 25. 19-year-old Taimak, who had no acting experience but a 3rd degree black belt in karate, was cast for his sincere smile and "genuine warmth and charm," according to Schultz. Vanity, a Canadian-born model, actress, and singer who had been groomed by Prince and signed recently to Motown, won the part of Laura Charles, a charismatic singer and TV host with a multi-media nightclub and nightly music show. They create very likable characters and bring a sweetness to their romantic scenes.
Schultz prided himself on casting experienced martial artists in all the action roles but he made an exception for Julius J. Carry III. His big, over-the-top portrayal of Sho'nuff (helped immensely by outrageously flamboyant costumes) and towering presence and exaggerated physical performance made him believable as a master fighter. In a much smaller role but almost as memorable is pint-size karate kid Ernie Reyes Jr., who appears in the final act in a comic battle with his real-life father, martial arts choreographer and stuntman Ernie Reyes Sr. The young actor went on to star in the TV series Sidekicks and the movies Surf Ninjas and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. Also look for young William H. Macy, who has a small role as a promoter in the opening scenes, Chazz Palminteri as a thug chauffeur, Mike Starr as the washed-up boxer, and future The Cosby Show daughter Keshia Knight as Leroy's little sister in a breakfast-table scene.
Schultz shot the film almost entirely in New York, most of it on location, with the Seventh Heaven video club built on a New York soundstage. Giant video screens were used as part of the set to add to the visual spectacle. The technology was borrowed from modern concert presentations but this was one of the first times it was used in a film. Along with professional videos by Debarge and Charlene, Schultz created cheeky original music videos for aspiring singer Angela (Faith Prince), a Cindy Lauper wannabe with a New Wave look and a Brooklyn working class manner. The style and sense of humor make these music video parodies look as legitimate as the real thing.
Looking back on the film years later, Schultz remarked that he accomplished what he had set out to make when he first read the screenplay. He hoped that "presenting a young black heroic character who had values and had positive training, being seen as a cornball character by other people but ultimately believing in his own power, could overcome evil, would be a thing that would resonate with youthful audiences. And it did."
by Sean Axmaker
"The Last Dragon" DVD commentary by Michael Schultz. Sony, 2001.
"The Last Dragon" website. Fast Rewind Multimedia, 2000.
"Fan Tribute to Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon" website.