Retro Cinema: The Last Dragon (1985)

Michelle reviews the '80s cult hit, The Last Dragon. 

Black martial artists in films roles have been few and far between and this was even more noticeable in the 1980s. The Last Dragon aimed to change this with an earnest effort to cater to a diverse audience by casting a young black man in the role of the Kung-fu protagonist. The film centers around the trials of a teenager named Leroy Green (Taimak) who has been learning martial arts underneath a Chinese Zen master in order to be more like his idol Bruce Lee. Unfortunately, his excellent fighting prowess comes to the attention of the so-called "Shogun of Harlem" Sho'nuff (Julius J. Carry III) which proves to be nothing but trouble for Leroy and his family. For the most part, the story of The Last Dragon follows classic kung-fu film tropes, but with updates to make it more modern (in the 1980s, that is).

Dude. I'm glowing. I must be pregnant. 

While the story is cliché, the atmosphere and environments are novel and a welcome change to the genre. The mood never gets too serious nor do the stakes get too high--it's more akin to a Saturday morning cartoon than a martial arts epic. Sho'nuff is hilarious and steals every scene that he's in. His entire persona is so over-the-top and ridiculous that you can't help but love him even though he is the villain. Every single line of dialogue he has in infinitely quotable and he's definitely a fan favorite. There is a subplot with an overzealous video game arcade owner named  Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney) that seems a bit tacked on, but it does provide for extra conflict with Leroy. Rounding out the cast is Vanity as Laura Charles, the famous host of 7th Heaven, a music video/dance show. While the acting is cheesy it's also quite endearing and makes the film fun to watch.

The Last Dragon was billed as a "martial arts musical film" and it lives up to the title with a diverse collection of '80s R&B and rap songs. The biggest hit from the soundtrack was DeBarge's song Rhythm of the Night which ended up being one of the only hits in his music career. Angela Viracco (Faith Prince) is a character in the film who is meant to be a parody of Madonna and her "songs" in the film are spot-on in that regard. Some music trivia: many years later in 1997, rapper Busta Rhymes released a song called Dangerous in which he is dressed as Sho'nuff and quoted lines from the movie. The Last Dragon has had quite an impact on pop culture since its release.

sho nuff
Beware the cat claws of doom.
The martial arts used in the film is pretty good and Taimak (Leroy) was a black belt in real life. It's not as highly choreographed as other films in the genre, but the fights do have lots of movement and sweet moves. Since it is the 1980s, lots of breakdancing moves are incorporated into the fight scenes and, as we all know, breakdancing is pretty much the coolest thing ever. Another interesting aspect of the film is the diverse cast--there is some "swapping" going on with black people in the traditionally Asian roles and Asians speaking street slang. Some of it does come off a bit politically incorrect, but it's just inherent in the era it was made in and shouldn't be taken offensively. No harm is meant by any of the jokes and the film has a positive message about believing in one's own abilities and fighting for what is right.  The Last Dragon is a must see for fans of kung-fu films or people who love corny cult movies.

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-Michelle Kisner