Every so often, I'll have the opportunity to watch a movie that I haven't seen since I was a kid. (NO, I'm not referring to the Paleozoic era but rather the 1980s.) One such opportunity occurred recently when I was strolling through my neighborhood mega-grocery and caught site of the 80s kung fu flick "The Last Dragon" on a display stand. I hesitated a bit, but eventually threw it into my cart next to the bags of curry flavored potato chips and cheap bottles of vodka. It had been over 30 years since I'd seen the movie, but I recalled enjoying it as a youth (back when I was neck deep in my love of ninjas, as detailed here.)
The problem with re-watching movies from your childhood is that they often don't hold up. Dramatic sequences that captivated your teenage brain are revealed to be flaccid and stupid. Plots that seemed so rich with adventure and intrigue are shown to be cliche and unimaginative. Sometimes you watch your childhood delights and feel soiled, as if you'd have been better off with only your dim but positive reminiscences.
This was not the case with "TLD." It was a blast to watch a second time, both for the memories it stirred and for the fact that its a fine, fun film.
When "The Last Dragon" appeared in 1984 it was a bold concept. It was a martial arts flick - not far removed from the kung fu or ninja movies that were then popular - but with a black man as the lead. To this day I can recall I and my cohorts surprise at this. "A black kung fu dude?" we exclaimed. "How could that be possible?" Indeed it was a premise that could have gone horribly wrong if the actor playing the lead, Taimak, had not been such an accomplished martial artist. (A fact the movie made clear in an opening montage which featured Taimak practicing a series of Bruce Lee-esque acrobatics.) As such, another stereotype fell and we embraced the character.
"The Last Dragon" was not conceived merely to show badass kung fu gymnastics, however. The force behind the film was Motown impresario Berry Gordy and he used the soundtrack of the movie to present music from his then contemporary roster of artists. The most successful of the featured songs was El Debarge's chart topping "Rhythm of the Night," an earworm still stuck in the heads of most people who were alive in the 80s. The presence of slick, keyboard driven Motown tunes throughout the movie gave it a hip, faux-urban sheen. (It's a sheen that has not aged well. Pre-hip-hop R&B just sounds so... polite.)
The story of the film was a half-tongue-and-cheek-half-serious action movie plot. Taimak's Leroy, a young martial arts instructor who has received years of training from an Asian guru, has perfected his skills but he craves the "glow" - a level of fighting prowess and intuition akin to Buddhism's nirvana. Leroy goes in search of the elusive Master, a fabled fighting teacher who has the secret of the glow (and conveniently lives in Leroy's home town of New York as opposed to, say, China.) Through no fault of his own, Leroy finds himself at odds with a local gang led by another African American martial artist, Sho-nuff, the Shogun of Harlem. Leroy also falls for an attractive television show host, Laura Charles (played by Prince protage, Vanity*) and when she finds herself under assault from deranged casino gangster Eddie Arkadian, Leroy becomes her protector. Eventually things comes full circle when Arcadian hires Sho-nuff and his gang to fight Leroy and his youthful disciples.
* Vanity? Taimak? This might be the only movie in existence where the actors had more interesting names than their characters.
I'm the first to admit that the story of "TLD" is no "Pride and Prejudice." (Hell, it's not even "Pride and Prejudice with Zombies.") What really makes the movie work is the comic book, slightly cornball characters and the actors who played them. The premise of Sho-nuff, "The Shogun of Crime" is clearly absurd, but that makes Julius J. Carry III's menacingly straight portrayal all the more entertaining. The villainous Eddie Arkadian is an architect of crime right out of the Underdog comics; he's continually being driven to spittle inflected and red faced frustration by both his dull witted assistant Rock (played by "Goodfella's" Mike Starr) and his daffy, Cyndie Lauper-esque "goil"friend (played by Faith Prince.)
The good guy characters are equally well rendered. Leroy, a devotee of all things Asian (he even eats movie popcorn with... get this... chopsticks!), is deliciously mocked by his Harlem-hip younger brother, Richie (played by actor Leo O'Brien who sadly died recently at the age of 41.) And lest you think this is a kung fu flick without Asians, Glen Eaton (I know - he doesn't sound Asian but he is) and Ernie Reyes, Jr have meaty roles as Leroy's students and partners in his adventures. But perhaps most memorable are the three Asian dudes who run the Sum Dum Goy Fortune Cookie company that is the home of the elusive Master. As a rapping, beat boxing, jive talking trio of Chinese Americans they are yin to Leroy's Yang; as black as he is Asian. This kind of cultural switcheroo might just sound like a gag played for cheap laughs but I think it really is the "soul" of the film, arguing---just as your college sociology professor would---that race is a social construct, one we are free to dismiss when we find an identity more to our liking. Granted, the embrace of blackness by the Chinese trio seems a little phony---a desperate grab at hipsterdom---but Leroy's comes across as real; even though he's from Harlem, he finds a path and identity in the East.
In a sense, "The Last Dragon" is the predictable result 1970s kung fu film craze that played in the grindhouse theaters of New York and other cities. While these movies were entirely foreign - often cheaply made in Hong Kong - they found an appreciative audience in urban African Americans. As James Schamus, screenwriter for martial arts breakout "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" once noted, "Cross-cultural stuff has been going on in the ghettoes for a long time... Bruce Lee was probably the greatest African-American star of the 70s." The reasons for this race-bridging love affair are complex but it doubtless resulted in numerous black martial artists, like Taimak's Leroy, emerging from the urban centers of America.
Whew - I bet you weren't expecting such heavy stuff from a goofy chop-suki flick. Don't sweat it; even if you pass on all the cultural analysis blather, "The Last Dragon" is still a great movie to help wile away a Saturday night. And get this: They're working on a remake!
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at email@example.com
View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!