How does ‘Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon’ play for a first-time viewer in 2015?

09.04.15 1 year ago

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

While I'd argue I have a fairly deep knowledge of '80s films, having survived the era the first time through, it seems I somehow missed “The Last Dragon,” directed by Michael Schultz.

Schultz works non-stop in television these days, and I'd wager that most of the people watching his episodes of “Arrow” or “Hart of Dixie” or “Black-ish” or “Chuck” or “The Mysteries Of Laura” have no idea this is the same guy who made movies like “Car Wash,” “Cooley High,” “Greased Lightning,” “Bustin' Loose,” or “Scavenger Hunt.” He was one of the few directors to work with Richard Pryor repeatedly, which automatically makes him somewhat of a superhero.

It's always strange when you watch a movie for the first time removed completely from the context in which it premiered, especially one that provokes such an enthusiastic cult response from so many people when you mention it. A mere reference to the film on Twitter got dozens of replies from people who were outraged that I didn't know the film intimately already. I can see now why it has a cult following, and considering how lily white many of the films that teens went crazy for in the '80s were, it's nice to see one that exists in a world where there are very few white faces of any kind, except as ridiculous stereotypical bad guys.

Taimak stars as “Bruce” Leroy Green, a martial-arts-movie-crazy kid growing up in Harlem, and he is a block of wood. I think that's the nice way of saying it. In the scenes where he has dramatic or comedic material to play, he's almost mesmerizingly dull. But when he's turned loose as a martial artist, he comes to life, and he's fun to watch. Therein lies the secret of “The Last Dragon.” It is frequently awful in several key ways, but it is also almost entirely fun, and that's what ultimately matters with this one.

Acting-wise, Taimak is well-matched with Vanity, but here's where I question my total lack of memory about this movie. I was, like most dudes my age, head-over-heels in lust with Vanity. Vanity 6 was sold using teenage boners as currency, and I paid as much as anyone. I remember when Prince made “Purple Rain” and the rumor was that the film was about her and that she was supposed to be in it, but when she wouldn't do it, he intentionally went out looking for someone to look just like her. I can't imagine that I didn't go see this if only to see Vanity onscreen. At 15, I was not above seeing a movie simply because of a shameless crush. She has a musical number in this film that looks like it was choreographed by someone in the grips of crippling diarrhea, and the song itself it almost like a dare to see if they can make you push fast-forward. Considering this was actually titled “Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon,” the majority of the soundtrack is a cheerful nightmare. Maybe it was the omnipresence of “Rhythm of the Night” on MTV that made me feel like I had seen the movie.

Julius Carry is an instantly recognizable face to anyone who was watching film and TV in the '70s and '80s, and he is one of the primary reasons to see the film. He plays Sho'nuff, the Shogun of Harlem, leader of a martial-arts gang, and he's the one who spends most of the movie antagonizing Leroy. Christopher Murney is a particularly unctuous little rich white asshole, and Faith Prince does surprisingly nuanced work in a role that could have been a complete waste with a less-crafty comic actress. It's because of performances like theirs that the film has such a particular sense of humor. It's hammy and silly, and I'm amazed Leo O'Brien didn't go on to a bigger career. He plays Leroy's little brother Ritchie. and he's one of those 13-going-on-50 characters, all wise-ass attitude, and he plays things big and broad just like Mike Starr, who went on to make about 1000 more movies. Starr knows what he's playing, and he cranks it all the way up. Leroy's students, including Glen Eaton and Ernie Reyes Jr., are all charming and having way too much fun. And the way the film uses the footage from the various Bruce Lee films is really fun to watch as a primer for why he's great, something my kids have been asking about lately.

Watching the film, I did find myself enjoying each big sequence more than the one before, and Schultz taps into something that I'm not sure I've really seen many films get right, the way exploitation movies and Chinese martial-arts films influenced young black culture in New York, where those grindhouses were frequently places to hang out and soak it all up. It almost plays like this should be the origin story of the Wu-Tang Clan. “Then, after they all beat the hell out of each other Bruce Lee-style, they started a gigantic rap collective to spread the gospel of The Glow.”

The Sony Home Entertainment release comes with a Blu-ray and a digital copy, and it looks like the studio has done excellent work with the best elements they could find. “The Last Dragon” looks about as good as anyone could hope for on this 30th anniversary edition. There's a director's commentary, a trailer, and a short feature about the film, and I'm actually going to make the time to go back and play that commentary. I want to hear Schultz talk about his earlier work, and if someone could get him to do commentaries for all of his Pryor films, I'd watch everyone one of those as well. Man, what I wouldn't give for a “Which Way Is Up?” commentary.

I have a feeling my own boys will get a kick out of this, and while I can't exactly say I think it's a great movie, I can see why the people who love it reeeeeeeeally love it. The film's got a sincere energy that is impossible to resist.

“The Last Dragon” 30th Anniversary Edition is available now. If you don't have it yet, considering using the Amazon link below or the Film Nerd 2.0 Amazon Store. All proceeds go to the nascent Film Nerd 2.0 War Chest.

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