Movies

A Deeper Look Into How ‘The Last Dragon’ Became An ’80s Classic

There’s a scene early in the 1985 martial arts film The Last Dragon that features a variety of New Yorkers at a screening of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. Bikers, breakdancers, brawlers, and a young man known as Bruce Leroy are watching, shouting, and even fighting along with the martial arts classic, before it’s all broken up by the meanest, the prettiest, the baddest mofo low down around this town… the Shogun of Harlem. As cartoonish and wonderful as that scene may be, it was based on an actual screening of the Bruce Lee film that screenwriter Louis Venosta attended with his then-girlfriend on the 10th anniversary of the icon’s passing in 1983.

“Have you seen this guy Bruce Lee?” Venosta recalls asking her before heading to a Times Square theater to join a crowd of fans that he compares to another cult classic. “It was like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where everybody was dressed in those kung fu suits and the shoes, they were carrying on mock fights in the aisles, it was a lot like that scene in the movie,” he tells us. “They all knew the words to the movie, they were all saying the words out loud and I looked at my girlfriend and said, ‘Are you seeing what I’m seeing?’ And she said, ‘I think I’m seeing what you’re seeing.’”

What they saw became the inspiration for Venosta’s next writing project. The former Fame dancer had already written two screenplays for “very serious dramas,” one of which earned him a Writer’s Guild of America fellowship. This time, however, he was inspired to write for the stage. He told his girlfriend that he saw the kung fu as the dancing in a “hilarious Broadway musical.” Fortunately she saw the bigger picture.

“She said, ‘Are you stupid? It’s a movie. Don’t do it as a show. It’s a movie,’” Venosta remembers. “We were walking and I said, ‘So, who’s the guy?’ I was running through names of friends of mine from Brooklyn and I said, ‘Leroy.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, Bruce Leroy.’ I was actually reading the Shogun novel and I thought, okay, it’s Bruce Leroy and the Shogun of Harlem. I’m going to make it a Brooklyn-Harlem thing. Six weeks later, it was written. The kung fu movie structure was obvious. It was one of the easiest things, honestly, I ever wrote.”

He had the movie theater scene, a hero who was teased for being different, a tough bad guy from the other side of town, and then the “shaggy dog story,” about how the hero had to embark on a journey before realizing what he sought was in front of him the whole time. The rest of the story came from Venosta’s own multi-racial background, as he describes himself as “one of these guys who’s always floating on the periphery of all these cultural tribes.” That’s evident from the concept of a black man obsessed with Bruce Lee’s talents, philosophies, and style, as well as secondary characters like the three jive-talkin’ Chinese Sum Dum Goy employees, who spend their time on the street, lip-syncing to “Sukiyaki Hot Saki Sue.”

“I was always very cognizant of the culture swapping that went on,” Venosta says. “I always thought it was funny, in this particular case you had these black and Hispanic guys who had embraced this Chinese hero. You’d walk through Chinatown and you’d see Chinese guys breakdancing. It was New York but it was also my particular eye for this kind of cultural phenomenon of the culture swapping. I was friends with guys like Mario Van Peebles at the time. We were all sort of part of a little group. We always talked about those blaxploitation films; there was always that dialogue. And I went, but they’re all bad guys. There really should be a young black kid superhero-type figure who kids can look up to with a positive aspirational thing.”

Venosta wrote the screenplay to be his directorial debut, although his version wouldn’t have been so over the top as the movie we know. After finishing the screenplay in six weeks, it took Venosta’s agent four weeks to sell it to a producer named Suzanne de Passe, who brought Motown into the loop. The next thing Venosta knew, he was on a flight to Los Angeles to meet with Berry Gordy.

“It was interesting,” Venosta says of meeting the music legend whose name would eventually be attached to the title of the film. After spending a few weeks living in Gordy’s Bel Air estate, Venosta moved into a place with director Michael Schultz so they could begin their rewrites. The writer’s version would have differed mostly in style, as his Shogun character would have been “a tough dude from Harlem,” and not a guy wearing ridiculous shoulder pads and those awesome ‘80s glasses. However, as he looks back on the film 31 years later, he admits that it might not have had the same success and cult following without those changes. But he still knew his idea was gold.

“I always thought the movie would be a big hit.”

Enter the New (and Last) Dragon

Had it not been for some fortuitous word of mouth, the martial artist making his acting debut as Leroy Green, Jr. in The Last Dragon would have been Tae Bo creator Billy Blanks. But a young kickboxing champion named Taimak Guarriello caught wind of the film and casting through his friends in the martial arts tournament scene, and like most teenagers he didn’t have a clue what was in store for him beyond 18. A career in acting seemed like “a pie in the sky dream,” he remembers, but he gave it a shot, figuring his martial arts skills could certainly win him the role. Of course, with zero acting experience, it was more likely that his audition would be memorable for all the wrong reasons.

“I grew up watching a lot of the Shaw Brothers kung fu stars and obviously Bruce Lee,” the actor and now author who goes simply by the name Taimak now tells us. “The instructor I was training with back then was Ron Van Clief, and also a friend of my mother’s was a dance choreographer on the film and he got me an audition. I did horrible because I never knew what a cold reading was and I thought, as a young guy, that I would just go in there and do some great martial arts moves and they’d like me. I ended up in an office with about three feet of space around me and part of the script in my hand, and I was totally thrown off. So, I eventually kept working on it but when I came to try to get another audition I was told that they already had another actor but they were going to give me an audition anyway. I ended up getting the role and they let go of the other actor.”

“It wasn’t a tough choice to make,” Venosta says of casting Taimak as the film’s hero. “There weren’t a lot of guys who could actually pull off the stuff this guy needed to be able to do. Billy was actually, again, more like the Brooklyn kid I had envisioned. But I think Taimak was fantastic.”

So, what was it about Taimak that made him perfect for the role? Despite the actor not matching Venosta’s vision of the film’s hero, the writer remembers liking Taimak’s soft-spoken nature, while Schultz seemingly found the perfect man for his own vision of the film’s hero. “Michael said that I had a quality that was like Bruce Leroy in the sense that there was an innocence yet street,” Taimak explains. “Since I was from New York City, I had a thing going on that they liked. But also being a martial artist in real life and being somewhat like the Leroy character, I guess they thought I had something that would resonate.”

Taimak wasn’t alone in terms of inexperience. Leroy’s love interest, Laura Charles, was played by Canadian singer and model Denise Matthews, better known as Vanity, who had three minor acting roles in 1980. Co-star Faith Prince had two small roles before she became the would-be pop starlet Angela Viracco. Glen Eaton also made his acting debut as Johnny Yu, Leroy’s cocky but comically inept sidekick, while a young Ernie Reyes, Jr. helped beat up Sho’nuff’s henchmen. Even William H. Macy and Chazz Palminteri padded their résumés with bit roles as J.J. and Hood #2, respectively.

Eaton was 14 years old in 1972, when Bruce Lee starred in The Chinese Connection and The Way of the Dragon, and he remembers being fascinated by the icon to the point that he and his brother would emulate his talents in their own fake fighting. That was the extent of his martial arts “training” in life and for The Last Dragon, but it was perfect for his character, Johnny Yu, who excelled at showing off the moves but didn’t have the guts to actually use them.

“It’s different,” Eaton explains of the film’s concept. “It was a comedy martial arts. It’s not typical. The picture was made very well, so when I saw the picture I was much more impressed with the way they made the picture, how well it was done, and the script was good but it was the picture. I was like, wow, they really brought it to life.”

Schultz, who is now 78 and still directing episodes of TV shows like Arrow and Blackish, already had more than a decade of experience behind the camera, directing hits like Cooley High, Car Wash, and Bustin’ Loose and the notorious flop musical Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The young actors were also aided by the presence of Julius Carry III, who had a solid TV background by the time he played Sho’nuff, and Christopher Murney, who played the ultimate bad guy, Eddie Arkadian, and made his acting debut in 1968. The film wasn’t exactly in line with what Murney was used to, but he enjoyed working with the younger actors: “They were fun, they were eager, they were young, they were willing to learn.”

“They all bring something entertaining to the film,” Eaton adds. “As the years go on, people still like it and other people watch it for the first time and they like it because they’re entertained. It’s a good message, and I think that’s, a lot of times, what we want.”

The Legend of the Shogun of Harlem

Sadly, some of the actors who made this film so special have died over the years, all of them far too early. Leo O’Brien, who played Leroy’s younger brother Richie, passed away in 2012 at 41, while Carry died from pancreatic cancer in 2008 at age 56. In February, Vanity died from renal failure. She was 57.

“She was trying to pursue a more wholesome type of character because she was doing those pretty steamy music videos,” Taimak remembers of his first and only big screen love interest. “Berry Gordy asked me if I thought she was the right one and I told him ‘yes.’ Not only because she was gorgeous but because she had something that the other actresses, although may have been better actresses, didn’t have. And he hired her.”

Carry’s performance was arguably the most important in terms of cult status, as the simple question “Who is the master?” is bound to elicit shouts of “Sho’nuff!” Taimak says that he and Carry had some “pretty interesting encounters” during the filming of The Last Dragon, but it was all for the sake of chemistry. “He would not like the fact that I thought he was funny and start fights with me, but then run away when it got serious,” Taimak laughs. “So we had a fun time. Everybody was very passionate about doing a great job so everybody supported each other.”

“He was just a terrific actor,” Eaton says of Carry. “I crack up every time I see him in the film. Especially that anger. He’s never happy, so he’s constantly expressing that hostility. That’s what makes his character fun. Rather than a serious, evil, mean guy, he’s funny to watch. Funny to watch him get all angry and his big ego, and so that’s part of the thing with the picture. You’re able to laugh and enjoy the good guys and the bad guys, all the characters.”

Had Venosta had his way, the Shogun character would have never been so outrageous. He wanted a tougher, meaner, more serious guy to represent Harlem in his war within NYC, but he’s certainly happy with the way that Carry portrayed the villain.

“I would never have thought to put Sho’nuff in these shoulder pads,” he admits. “He would have been a tough dude from Harlem. Immersed in the kung fu culture but not this cartoon incarnation, which again, today I like. I actually love what Julius did with it. And interestingly enough, part of where that came from was they hired a Broadway guy to do the costumes. He was kind of like that character in The Producers. And he came up with this look and I was kind of like, ‘Huh?’ But it works. Again, I think it ended up adding a great aspect to the film that, again, is not a choice I would have made but a choice I’m happy was made.”

The Lighter Side of Villains

What helped make Sho’nuff such a great bad guy was the presence of the cartoonishly sinister Eddie Arkadian, who was forced to recruit all of the city’s toughest brawlers to take down Leroy for protecting Laura Charles and beating up all of Eddie’s hapless muscle. The mobster character was influenced by Schultz and Gordy, as Venosta thought it was the most “over the top move” of all of the film’s over the top aspects, but he still liked Murney’s performance. And Murney, being the veteran actor of this cast, decided that Eddie would be best suited being as cartoonish as possible.

“He was straighter in the beginning and I just kept pushing it further, seeing how far I could take him,” Murney explains. “Michael just let me go and if it was too much Berry was always on set. Sometimes they would say, ‘Well, that’s too far,’ and then I’d either agree with it and pull back or let it go and see what happens, see how it plays. There was one scene that we shot, the first scene that we shot in the film where some money was exchanged with Sho’nuff, and they had gone through all of the trouble of putting me in a hairpiece. In that scene, I came back and they said, ‘Jeez Chris, we’ve got a problem, we gotta lose the piece.’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s just ditch it, we don’t need it.’ They said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Well, just leave it. It doesn’t matter. It’s in the middle of the movie and Eddie’s just a cartoon character anyway. Just don’t explain it, just leave it.’ And they did.”

For a newcomer like Faith Prince, who played Murney’s on-screen love interest, working with someone who was pushing it “too far” or just far enough came with a dilemma. She had to keep herself from breaking. “Chris Murney was hilariously funny,” she says. “The hardest thing for me was to get through scenes being committed and not laugh because it was just so outrageous. Chris Murney is brilliant. It was all we could do to commit to every scene like it was this heightened drama, and we were just cracking each other up.”

The bigger problem with taking his performance to the creative limit was that it almost cost Murney an eye. In his fancy office, Eddie’s brother Rock, played by Mike Starr, keeps a fish tank with a giant-but-unseen meat-eating fish. When Leroy arrived in ninja gear to rescue Laura, of course he had to dunk Eddie’s head in the mysterious, bubbling vat. But when they filmed that moment, the pipe that produced the bubbles proved more dangerous than one of Leroy’s throwing stars.

“If you go back and look at the scene again, you’ll see that when my head is pulled out of the tank there’s a little cut right above my eye,” Murney says. “When I dunked my head in on this particular take, I didn’t realize how close I was and I missed my eye by about an inch when I did that shot. By an inch. The bubble pipe just hit me right in the forehead, right above my eye. And you can see a little blood mark of where it hit my forehead.”

Eddie was driven by a desire to see his girlfriend, Angela, succeed as a pop singer, so he chose the rational course of action: kidnapping Laura, the host of an MTV-style dance show, and forcing her to air Angela’s bizarre music videos for songs like “Dirty Books” and “Test Drive.” If Eddie was cartoonish, then there isn’t a word to properly describe Angela, but Faith’s performance earned high praise.

“Faith was hilarious, she was wonderful,” Venosta says. “She’s still one of my favorite things in the movie. Not quite the way I wrote Angela but an extreme version of it.”

It goes without saying that Angela was inspired by Cyndi Lauper, as Prince recalls Gordy even asking her to “come to Motown to be our Cyndi Lauper.” Gordy was so serious about creating a pop star within a movie that he even presented the idea to Prince as a new career option, she says. She took it as a compliment, naturally, but Prince’s heart was in acting on screen, not playing a character in the real world.

Still, Gordy was receptive to Prince’s input for this secondary character. In filming the music videos, she remembers working with “the hottest guys on the scene,” as if they were filming actual videos for MTV. But when Gordy recut the song and took it in a different direction, Prince was confused because she liked the original and thought it was better for the story and her character. She wasn’t trying to question a musical genius, but when she did, he called her up to his hotel room for a conversation.

“I walk in the door and there are two bodyguards and they usher me in, and Mr. Gordy is sitting in his room and he’s got one boombox on the left of him and one boombox on the right,” she recalls. “He had the original cassette of the thing we laid down on the left and he had his cut in the cassette on the right. He said, ‘I thought we’d just take a listen.’ We listened to both and he looked at me and he said, ‘You know, for your young years, I wish I had 10 people around me like you. You are not a young person.’ I said, ‘No sir, I’m not.’ He said, ‘You’re right, the story is better in the first cut.’”

Years later, Prince attended a party at actress Allison Janney’s house where guests were required to bring their most embarrassing acting footage. There was a big screen set up in the back of the house and everyone would watch and laugh at each other’s select moments. Prince’s footage was one of the music videos from The Last Dragon, but instead of laughing along with it, she says, the guy playing the clips shut it off. Why? “He goes, ‘You’re too convincing,'” she recalls. “It’s like you’re really trying go for it, like good acting. But that footage, even though I was doing it to be funny, it held up much better than anything there because it was so committed.”

Next Stop: Broadway?

From Busta Rhymes recreating Sho’nuff’s look in his 1997 music video for “Dangerous” to UFC fighter Alex Caceres calling himself “Bruce Leeroy,” there’s never a shortage of tributes to this film. Earning $25 million at the box office, the film was a hit despite less-than-glowing reviews. Its quotability, catchy music, and all-around campiness have since made it a massive cult classic. In fact, as we interviewed Venosta, a fan interrupted to let him know how much he loves the movie. But that’s rather tame compared to some of the more diehard fans.

“Two couples, separately, told me they got married because of the movie,” Taimak remembers. “They were dating and either the wife or the husband was such a fan of the film that they just played it for their wife or husband and they fell in love watching the movie. It became part of their jargon when they talk to each other. The man would say, ‘Who’s the master?’ And she would go, ‘I am!’ It integrated into their lives and then people at their jobs would use all the different lines from the film. The lines are just iconic, so memorable.”

If the movie was a box office success, fans adored it, and everyone enjoyed working on it, why was there never a sequel? “Ten, maybe 15 years ago I started getting emails from people: ‘Why isn’t there a sequel?’ I was like, ‘Well, nobody’s asked me to do a sequel,’” Venosta laughs. “I don’t know why there’s not a sequel. If somebody wants to do a sequel, I’ve got ideas for sequels. It wouldn’t be hard to do a sequel. I don’t think a remake would be very interesting. I don’t think you’d want to do it like they remade Karate Kid. I think you could still sequelize it, there’s still an opportunity to introduce a young character who would interact with an older Taimak.”

In Taimak’s appropriately-named autobiography, The Last Dragon, he includes a treatment and some ideas for The Last Dragon sequel that never happened. People have certainly thought about making the follow-up and even a remake, as terrible as that thought may be, but the actor says the decision ultimately rests with Sony Pictures and Berry Gordy’s son, Kerry. Perhaps there’s a good reason as to why this particular movie remains remake-free.

“I don’t know about a remake because it’s like remaking Michael Jackson,” Taimak says. “You have something so loved and so unique, how do you remake Michael Jackson? How do you remake Bruce Lee? People say that I gave them that vibe of when they watch Bruce Lee, because there was something about when they saw me in this film. And I was being myself but he was a hero of mine and he still is. You can copy or be inspired but you’ve got to be yourself. The movie has to be its own thing.”

Not having experience in martial arts or pop music, Murney originally saw the film as a paycheck, and he’s still pretty shocked today that it’s such a cult phenomenon. “It’s nice that it turned out that way,” he says of the fan following, but he thinks it’s better that there was no sequel, and certainly no remake. “I don’t know if you can call it lighting in a bottle, but it’s close. It just came together and it worked. They’d be making a mistake if they tried to do a remake only because the danger of a remake, it’s always going to be compared to the original. So that’s a chance you take.”

In 2008, it was reported that Wu-Tang Clan member and The Man with the Iron Fists director RZA was working on a remake of The Last Dragon and he was focused on landing Rihanna to play the Laura Charles role. His pick for Bruce Leroy was Chris Brown, even after the singer assaulted Rihanna, because he thought a good guy role could serve as damage control. In 2009, RZA said that he and Samuel L. Jackson (reportedly cast as the new Sho’nuff) were working with Sony and the Gordy family to tell a new version of this story, but he didn’t believe the script was good enough. And as recently as 2014, RZA was still defending his desire to remake a cult classic, comparing it to laundry detergent. But that’s the last we’ve heard of it.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we’ve heard the last of Bruce Leroy. The Gordys and Sony may control the big screen destiny of Bruce Leroy, but Venosta still has stage hopes for his Brooklyn hero.

“Because I had originally envisioned it that way, I carved out the Broadway rights in my contract,” Venosta reveals. “I actually could do it without asking anybody. It’s the question of finding the time to do it, and sit down and do it. In fact, one of these people sent an email to Bruno Mars saying, ‘Hey, Louis wants to do a musical of The Last Dragon, want to write some songs?’ This was just two days ago. So, if Bruno Mars calls me I’ll be like, ‘Let’s go.’ That would blow my mind. It can be Bruno, it can be Alicia Keys, it can be Jay Z, it can be any of them. There are some great songwriters and musicians that I think the fun part is, I’m curious to find out who are the obsessive fans of The Last Dragon that would like to go, ‘Yeah! Let’s do a Broadway musical!’ That’s what’s nice about it, it has this energy that I don’t have to convince people that it would be a fun idea. It has its own energy.”

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