Another day, another hidden eighties gem. The Last Dragon is a triumph of eighties filmmaking. It’s at the same time a martial arts movie, a musical, and a comedy, offering loads of innocently packaged eighties entertainment. It breaks stereotypes with style and presents a narrative that transcends everything from race to taste. And the people noticed this. Made with a budget of $10 million, it was a critical failure but it smashed the box offices, making over $30 million. It inspired artists like Busta Rhymes and it has since become a cult classic.
The Last Dragon is a movie featuring a classic martial arts set-up with a young and talented athlete seeking wisdom from the master. In the early eighties, Ninja movies like Enter the Ninja (1981), and its sequels sparked a veritable Ninja craze. Soon, people were discovering Hong Kong action movies and Jackie Chan was becoming hugely popular. He was the unofficial successor of the one and only, Bruce Lee.
Do you know how they call the black martial artist in The Last Dragon? They call him Bruce Leroy. And then, in 1984, Karate Kid came out, offering an Americanized version of the classic Asian tale of valor, honor, and skill. Destroying the box offices and making more than $130 million on a $9 million budget, it opened the floodgates.
The production of The Last Dragon began back in 1984 with one goal: create a fun kung fu movie for teens that young adults could like too. And while people couldn’t fully appriciate its silliness back then, we sure can today, in the year 2023. Especially, if you’re a sucker for eighties movies. So, let’s set off on an adventure that is this movie.
The Cast of The Last Dragon
I don’t think that I ever saw a movie featuring no less than three actors with single name. Taimak is playing the lead role, Vanity is his love interest and Mako is his teacher. You can’t make this shit up, I tell you. However, things could’ve easily been much different. Laurence Fishburne, Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Mario Van Peebles, and Billy Blanks were all considered for the lead role. In case you don’t know who Mr. Blanks is, you better educate yourself with TC 2000.
Eventually, the role went to young, 20-year-old black belt Taimak who had no prior acting experience. He actually learned how to act on the set of this movie. Of course, dashing goddess Vanity was the only choice to play Laura. I’m in love with her and I’ll probably eventually recommend to you all every movie she’s been in. So far I’ve covered Never Too Young To Die and Neon City. Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Billy Dee Williams, and Carl Weathers were considered for the role of Sho’Nuff.
Julius Carry got the role and gave one hell of an over-the-top performance. It was so good that it inspired Busta Rhymes to parody him in the video for the song Dangerous. He did know how to act but he wasn’t a martial artist. So he learned to fight just for this movie. Apart from them, we’ve also got William H. Macy and Chazz Palminteri in one of their first roles on film.
Mike Starr, whom you might remember from Dumb and Dumber plays the bad guys henchmen again. And Faith Prince nailed her role as charming Angela, a tribute to Cyndi Lauper. With names like these, it’s to forget the younger part of the cast. The Last Dragon is a movie featuring 10-year-olds fighting grown men, cracking jokes like adults and just being cool as shit. Leo O’Brien and Ernie Reyes Jr. were leading the pack.
So, What’s This Movie About?
After all of this, you might be wondering what’s the movie The Last Dragon about. It’s about a young martial artist Leroy Green, who wants to be just like his role model Bruce Lee, a master of his craft. His teacher tells him he’s almost reached the final level, The Last Dragon level, and that he must seek guidance from another master, Sum Dum Goy. When he finishes this quest, he will get “The Glow”, a special skill that enables him to beat any opponent. However, a chance encounter will put him on another, more romantic and more dangerous path.
Bruce Leroy, as everybody calls him, will fall in love with Laura, a beautiful video jockey working out of a 7th Heaven Studio. While she gets into trouble with a sleazy music producer, Leroy gets into trouble with a local gang leader, Sho’nuff, The Shogun of Harlem. I know all of this sounds a bit unhinged but it gets even crazier when you start watching the movie. We go from fights in the movie theater to cheerful music numbers in a matter of seconds.
When you combine this with ridiculously extravagant clothes, bizarre and yet familiar script, and over-the-top delivery, you get one hell of a movie. The actual title of the movie is Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, as he was the executive producer. He’s also the owner of Motown Records and this is why we got such a great soundtrack. Some argue this is the entire reason why the movie was made, to sell records. Which brings us to our next section.
The Last Dragon Soundtrack Is Kicking Ass
This is probably the funkiest martial arts movie on the planet. The first song we heard wasn’t that good, but these were the eighties and the hero had to have a title song. It was actually nominated for the “Worst Original Song’ category at the 1985 Golden Raspberry Awards. The same goes for the Vanity’s song “7th Heaven.” The first song that really hit me was Dirty Books performed by Faith Prince. It’s so catchy and groovy that I had to rewind the movie just to hear it one more time. And the video was also great.
Moreover, pay attention to how Faith Prince, playing Angela, is dressed during the Test Drive performance. She’s got the headlights on her breasts, a license plate on her butt and her earrings are, well, you better see them for yourself. By the time I heard Suki Yaki Hot Saki Sue by Raw Dog, I was already hooked. The music was great but the lyrics were even better. You sock it to me, I’ll sock it to you is such a catchy line that I can already hear people using it that night in their local dance club.
And you can bet your ass that I’m listening to it right now as I’m writing these lines. I also should mention Diane Warren’s Rhythm of the Night, a song that was number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on the Billboard R&B charts. Kid uses breakdancing to break out of the rope they used to tie him up. It also shows how music moguls used everything at their disposal to get their artist popular. Something that Suge Knight is going to perfect in the coming decade.
Everybody Likes Kung Fu Fighting
We get our first fight in The Last Dragon not ten minutes in when a couple of gang members break into theater and start blasting their boombox. The theater is full of stereotypical gang members from bikers over punks and Rastafarians to even drag queens. However, none of them can come even close to Sho’nuff’s gang. They look like rugby players who’ve been on crack for several centuries, emigrated to Japan and have now started their quest for dominance. The fight that ensues is more comical than enthralling. In the next one, Taimak displays all the skill and talent that got him the role.
He dispatches several henchmen with ease, Bruce Lee style. When I said that The Last Dragon is not your classical martial arts movie, what I meant to say is that the fighting is not in the focus. It’s kind of strange to explain that despite all these showdowns, including the final one between Bruce Leroy and Sho’nuff, the focus is more on the notion that you should be a good person. The kung fu and ninja stuff is there to attract the fans of these emerging subgenres. This is further confirmed by one of Bruce Leroy’s students, Johnny.
This fine-looking Asian man says: You know how you told to master the art of fighting without fighting? Well, I did you one better. I mastered the art of fighting without knowing how to fight. You see, people are afraid of Oriental dudes. Give ’em a little scream, a little move and a lots of attitude and that’s it. This is just one of many subversive elements we find in the movie The Last Dragon. We also have surreal scenes where ten-year-old kids are fighting adults. And winning.
The Last Dragon Is Not A Classical Blaxploitation Movie
Look, I know that the lead character of The Last Dragon, a kung fu movie, is a black guy called Bruce Leroy but just hear me out on this one. This is a movie that subverts stereotypes and offers a narrative that sees no color. The best thing you can do with such a horrific thing as racism is making fun of it. It’s no wonder that the only things that dictators all around the world fear is satire and humor. And there’s a lot of it here. From a black brother wearing a traditional Japanese straw hat everywhere he goes to his even more iconic jumpsuit and kimono.
And then we meet three Japanese guys breakdancing (badly) to the sounds of Raw Dog’s Suki Yaki Hot Saki Sue. If you thought that was a pinnacle of the bizarrness, wait ’till you hear them speak. They’re hilariously trying to sound like black guys using all the possible slang words you can think of. And then they self-parody Asian stereotypes and clinch the deal by asking Leroy to sound like a stereotypical black guy from the hood. Perhaps only now you’ll notice, as I did, that Leroy was just a normal guy who wasn’t using slang. This didn’t felt forced by any means.
He also has a big and loving family, kind of like in Everybody Hates Chris. Can we also appreciate the fact that there’s not a single attractive white guy or a girl in this movie. The master Leroy seeks is called Sum Dum Goy, which can be translated into Some Dumb Non-Jewish person as Jewish people use that term, Goy, to refer to a non-Jewish person. And when he finally finds him, he turns out to be a computerized system for making fortune cookies. An ominous sign of the changing times. A warning that in the future, computers might be our masters…
A Joyous Journey Through The Eighties
We could spend hours discussing the fashion choices you’re about to witness in The Last Dragon. When we finally meet our three masters of Sum Dum Goy, one of them is wearing leather pants, see through net shirt, and a white glove, probably honoring the most popular artist of that time Michael Jackson. Others didn’t try nearly as hard as him. Angela’s outfits are so colorful they could be seen from space. And Sho’nuff is in his own league along with his posse. Speaking of posses, we must also remember that during the first fight in the movie theatre we had a burly white guy rocking a cropped pink tank top.
The locations we will be visiting are so eighties you will feel like you’ve traveled through time. From sleazy movie theaters over cool dojos to abandoned warehouses, everything is oozing nostalgia. The dojo is actually a Harlem Karate Institute of Grandmaster Ernest Hyman. And the theater is actually The Victory Theater on 42nd Street, best known for its late-night screenings of adult movies. The place where Vanity works, The Seventh Heaven studios, looks like a vibrant copy of the Soul Train tv show.
When Diana Ross visited the set one day, she enquired about buying for her upcoming tour. The scenes there were filmed with equipment worth well over $1 million including three Sony Betacam players, the only ones in existence at that time. They were especially developed for this movie. To top it all off, Leroy’s parents actually own a pizza place. If I didn’t know any better, I would expect both the ninja turtles and He-Man to burst through the doors right now.
The Last Dragon is a movie that sends a clear message of love, peace, and friendship. You won’t find blood, swearing, or any of the adult content here. It talks about love in an innocent and pure way also emphasizing the importance of family. And I’m going to skip the scene where Vanity agrees to teach Leroy’s friend some “moves”. Again, Leroy is willing to forgive both villains in this movie despite their efforts to literally kill him. It has aged like fine vine and it’s always good for another viewing.
Especially if you have some friends who haven’t seen it yet. And I’m not going to mention Vanity. Ahh crap, I did it again. On the other hand, Taimak is one fine looking brother. This is a movie that not only shows the past, with the music shows and kung fu movies, but also the future with the computers, ruthless music producers and gang violence. It makes fun of racial stereotypes and itself in the process, just having a good time.
The big fight in the studio features none other than white Mr. T who looks more like Dynamo from another eighties classic The Running Man. The script is as silly as it is memorable, especially when it comes to the Sho’nuff’s character. Who’s the mastah? I ask, who’s the mastah? The soundtrack is also absolutely fantastic. Most importantly, The Last Dragon is a movie that’s going to put you in a good mood. And sometimes, that’s all we need from a movie.