Friday, September 18, 2009

“Now, when I say, "Who's da mastah?" you say, "Sho'nuff!"

How can I possibly introduce Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon? Made in 1985, it’s a martial arts film that dips its toes into blaxsploitation, but not really. It’s a martial arts musical comedy, but how much of that is intentionally funny, I’m not quite sure of. It is an unapologetic B movie with a cult following though.

Dateline: Harlem (as opposed to Haarlem, which is in the Netherlands), the Mid-80s. A young black student of martial arts seeks to perfect his skills by finding a master who will help him achieve the power of “the glow.” Alongside his quest, he runs afoul of a beautiful, young singer/MTV vee-jay who is almost constantly being harassed and kidnapped by the goons of a deranged arcade owner who is trying to push his girlfriend’s terrible music videos on the world. Yes, really. Our hero also has to reconcile with his much “hipper” brother and deal with a belligerent rival. All of this happens in 109 minutes.

Leroy Green/Bruce Leroy: Taimak plays our Hero, the honest, innocent, almost painfully naïve student of kung fu who goes around Harlem dressed up in a Bruce Lee like outfit with a Coolie hat. Virtuous and peaceful, he teaches at a dojo and is really just interested in perfecting his own abilities for most of the film. To that end, he seeks out “The Master,” rumored to work in a fortune cookie factory, but he gets swept up in a rivalry with Sho’nuff and with always ending up rescuing Laura. He’s an interesting character, a little bit on the stock side of things, but likable in his wide-eyed “good guy-ness” (I know its not a word).

Laura Charles: Vanity (singer and former protégé of Prince) plays the damsel in distress who just can’t seem to catch a break from the villains. She starts falling in love with Leroy, as happens in these films.

Eddie Arkadian: Christopher Murney is the Villain of the movie, an insane, short, bald man who would kill to get his girlfriend’s terrible music video played on the air. Which is as goofy as you’d think it sounds, but the character never lets up on his mania, so he actually ends up being pretty creepy. He’s also got a former boxer named Rock as his henchman. They’ve got a fish tank with…something in it that can strip meat off the bone in seconds.

Angela Viracco: Faith Prince plays the ditzy but not evil girlfriend of Eddie with quite a few Cyndi Lauper touches.

Richie Green: Leo O’Brien plays Leroy’s kid brother, who keeps talking big about getting Laura as his girlfriend and basically asking his brother “what the hell’s up with you?” for his Asian fixation. Ultimately, he’s there to serve as a comic foil (as a sassy, streetwise black kid) to his forthright, uptight brother.

Sho’nuff the Shogun of Harlem: Julius J. Carry III plays the film’s badass and is the reason you watch this movie. I’m serious. He has a posse, a custom-painted van, beats the living hell out of anything that looks at him crosswise (movie-goers, furniture in a pizza shop, etc) and has a pair of those solid plastic, Venetian blind style shades big in the 80’s (that Kanye tried to bring back). He talks smack and has the muscle to back it up.

There’s also an appearance by a very, very, very young Ernie Reyes Jr. (from TMNT 2 and, uh, Surf Ninjas) and also frickin’ William H. Macy in a small part as Laura’s assistant who tries to warn her about how dangerous Eddie Arkadian is.

Bearing in mind that we are in cheesy 80’s film territory, the directing done by Michael Schultz (who’s done a lot of television work) is not bad. In terms of an overall visual impact, the watchword is “colorful.” Hair is big in this film, and so is the neon lighting. You’ve been warned. The influence of Bruce Lee is all over this movie too, with some footage from his film, particularly Enter The Dragon.

Now, as an action movie, the martial arts stuff was actually really good and fun to watch. The climactic fight scene between Leroy and Sho’nuff is actually pretty kickass and features quite a bit of the desired Glow when used by both combatants as a surprisingly good special effect.

The script by Louis Venosta tells the story without too many hitches. Things happen and fight scenes are not withheld from the audience. The story seems to be almost self aware, like the filmmakers are giving a wink to the audience, but its never really clear when the ridiculous stuff is supposed to be part of that joke or was just a budget/time thing. Probably the most interesting thing the writing does is play around with stereotypes, with various characters that either play up their ethnic stereotype or play against it completely. It’s a nice touch, actually.

The original music by Bruce Miller and Misha Segal gets the job done, but the real draw is the crazy, over-the-top 80’s songs from DeBarge, Vanity, Stevie Wonder and even Smoky Robinson. Still, probably the best song for the movie is “The Last Dragon” written by Bruce Miller & Norman Whitfield, performed by Dwight David and played during the final fight. Its an ear worm that’ll lodge itself into your head, telling you that you are the last dragon and do in fact, possess the power of the Glow.

It’s a cult movie, and that factors into my assessment of things. As such, yeah, The Last Dragon is pretty hilarious, memorable and full of plenty of scenes that are both awesome and induce head scratching. The movie is apparently being remade with Samuel L. Jackson taking over the part of Sho’nuff, and that sounds promising, but the original is a pretty fun action/comedy that has a subplot of Leroy trying to get into a fortune cookie factory run by three Asians that are more ghetto than he is. That’s the kind of movie this is, so you should know if that’s the kind of stuff you want to sit through. As for me, yeah, it was a lot of cheesy fun.

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