Urban black culture meets Asian martial arts philosophy meets music video glamor in The Last Dragon, a colorful, comic, self-aware reworking of a classic Hong Kong martial arts odyssey in contemporary New York. Call it a Motown martial arts movie seeped in New York urban culture and eighties color and music.
Real-life karate black belt Taimak plays earnest young martial arts student Leroy Green, nicknamed Bruce Lee-roy by the locals. He models himself on Bruce Lee, dresses in a modest black robe and an Asian straw hat, eats popcorn with chopsticks, spouts fortune cookie wisdom, and talks in the formal, polite manner of screen Asians who speak English in American movies without contractions (it’s always “do not,” never “don’t”). Needless to say, he stands out amidst the street smart characters of his Harlem neighborhood and his hip kid brother (future rapper Leo O’Brien, founding member of The Sugarhill Gang) thinks he’s just weird. Music video TV host and singer Laura Charles (Vanity), however, thinks he’s perfectly charming, especially after he saves her from mob-wannabe thugs not once but twice. Meanwhile a trash-talking peacock of a martial arts gangleader named Sho’nuff, the self-proclaimed Shogun of Harlem (Julius J. Carry III), spends the film trying to pressure Leroy into a fight to prove once and for all that he’s the master.
“The rest of the plot, which has to do with Vanity’s resisting gangland pressure to play rotten videos in her dance club, is too idiotic to bear explaining,” wrote Janet Maslin in her review for The New York Times, which was indicative of the reviews of the day. Arriving just as hip-hop, rap, break-dancing, and graffiti art were getting a spotlight in scrappy little films with serious cultural undercurrents like Breakin’ and Beat Street (Schultz himself would make Krush Groove a year later), The Last Dragon was a fun-loving movie fantasy, pure and simple. Its mix of action, comedy, music, dance, revenge movie, and spiritual odyssey was not well reviewed but it was embraced by audiences, who turned it into a small-scale hit. Decades later, it remains a cult film with passionate fans.
Plays on TCM on Saturday, April 13