The Last Dragon (1985)

When I mentioned that I would be watching The Last Dragon, my wife immediately mention Debarge's "Rhythm of the Night".  I was surprised that she was aware of this film, since, although we both grew up in the '80s, I had never heard of it.  Sure, "Rhythm of the Night" I have heard over and over again, and it was one of those ubiquitous songs of 1985.  I just never knew it came from this movie. 

She was under the impression that it stars El Debarge which, thankfully, it does not.  There is a brief segment of the music video being played, but that's about it.  It is, however, as '80s as you would expect a movie with that song to be.  It is also still quite entertaining.

Leroy Green (Taimak) is a young man obsessed with martial arts.  While training with his master (Thomas Ikeda), he manages to show that he is ready for the final level, known as The Glow, in which his spirit guides his body motions.  Since he has reached this step, Leroy is told that his master can no longer train him.  Leroy, however, is insistent that he still doesn't know how to obtain that final level, and still needs training, so his master gives him an amulet that he says belonged to Bruce Lee, and sends him off to find Master Sum Dum Goy, who is rumored to be the wisest man in the universe.

While enjoying a showing of Enter the Dragon, the showing is suddenly interrupted by local gang leader Sho'Nuff (Julius Carry), who has styled himself the Shogun of Harlem.  When a boy in the audience says that Leroy can stop him, Sho'Nuff calls him out.  However, Leroy decides to leave rather than confront him, enraging Sho'Nuff to the point that the kid becomes an obsession.

Meanwhile, a local mafia hood named Eddie Arkadian (Christopher Murney) tries to get local VJ Laura Charles (Vanity) to play a video he produced of his girlfriend Angela (Faith Prince) on her show.  She refuses, so Eddie sends a number of his hoods to kidnap her.  Fortunately, Leroy happens to passing by and rescues Laura, but loses his amulet in the process.  Unfortunately, in his innocence about anything not related to his training, he doesn't know who she is.  His little brother Richie (Leo O'Brien), though, happens to be obsessed with her and often sneaks into her show in an attempt to win her heart, despite being about 12 years old.  Richie is reluctant, but finally relents and agrees to introduce him to her.  Unfortunately, he arrives too late to save her from another kidnap attempt.

Despite threats to her life, Laura still refuses to play the video.  Luckily, Leroy has tracked her to Eddie's hideout, and manages to break in and rescue her and, returning to her apartment, retrieves his amulet.  Even with it, though, he finds it near impossible to gain entrance to see Sum Dum Goy, who seems to be holed up in a fortune cookie factory.  To further complicate matters, Sho'Nuff and his gang up the ante, attacking Leroy's dojo and and the pizza parlor owned by his family, causing Richie to lose faith in his brother due to the lack of retaliation.  The lack of faith also effects Leroy, who doubts his ability to protect Laura, who is visibly falling for him.

He has also become Arkadian's obsession, as the mobster hires all manner of criminals and allies with Sho'Nuff to force a final confrontation with Leroy, who must now discover the secret of The Glow before it is too late for him and everyone he loves.

The Last Dragon was produced by Berry Gordy, the owner of Motown Records, and served as a vehicle for pushing music by a number of artists from his label.  Keep in mind the '80s were not the golden age of Motown, despite still maintaining artists like Lionel Richie and Diana Ross.  "Rhythm of the Night" is not a terrible song, and neither is Vanity's "7th Heaven", but most of the songs on here are.  Without the context of the movie they are everything that is bad about '80s music.  Still, because this film is filled with so much of that decade's excess as it is, they help up the camp appeal, especially in the open montage and the final battle.

Taimak is a legitimate martial artist, and there are a couple scenes that show exactly what he can do - catching arrows and, in a stunt that apparently took a couple hours to perfect, karate-chopping one of the arrows in midair.  He was not hired for his acting skills, but he still manages to make the character of Leroy quite memorable.  It is an example of what the movie does right: the hero, and the villains, are so absolutely outrageous that it becomes endearing. 

The best example is Julius Carry, who steals every scene he is in as the sneering, hilariously attired Sho'Nuff.  From his method of speaking (full volume, all the time), to his entourage and even a color-coded van, the Shogun of Harlem could have been plucked from The Warriors and dropped into this film to give it a bit more color than the one-note gangsterisms of Arkadian. Not that Christopher Murney doesn't do a good job of chewing the scenery, but something this garish needed someone other than a balding thug to be Leroy's nemesis.

Vanity, if recent interviews with Taimak are to be believed, was largely cast because Berry Gordy wanted someone with whom Leroy would have real chemistry, and Taimak at the time had a crush on her.  She's largely allowed to do what she does best, which is look pretty and sing, and the role is little more than that of a damsel in distress.  What the role did is allow her to move on from her stalling music career into acting, which she pursued until her conversion to Christianity.

As a kung fu fantasy, which The Last Dragon attempts to be, it largely fails.  Director Michael Schultz really has no idea how film martial arts fights, and more of an idea how to make music videos.  That is the look the movie generally has.  No surprise, as videos still really meant something in 1985, and more and more new movie directors were coming from that field.  As a fun '80s relic that will either make you groan or laugh, with or at it, the movie probably has more going for it now than it did when it came out. 

The Last Dragon (1985)
Time: 109 minutes
Starring: Taimak, Vanity, Julius Carry, Christopher Murney
Director: Michael Schultz

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