Looking Back at The Last Dragon

Is it an 80s ninja flick? Is it a really long music video? Nope. It's Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon, 1985's only kung fu flick with a Motown soundtrack. Now ask yourself, "Who's the master?"

Talking about The Last Dragon is as easy as breathing if you are a student of 80s movies. If you ever watched a Bruce Lee movie you know that his inspiration on the martial arts in cinema is omnipresent. Never is Lee’s influence more present than in the cheesy (albeit totally lovable) film, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. The 80s in particular had an explosion of ninja movies that became ingrained in one of the most decadent eras of movie history. Whether it was Sho Kosugi flicks, the American Ninja series, or Gymkata, the mysterious men in black were all over the place.The Last Dragon boasted a large (for that time) $10 million budget, so when Motown creator Berry Gordy threw his hat into the ring as a movie producer he certainly didn’t expect to release a film so poorly received and widely panned. While it made its money back, Gordy never expected his film would eventually attain cult status.Playing like a comic book come to life, The Last Dragon is easily one of the best “B” movies that the ninja genre produced during this period. “Bruce” Leroy Green (played by Taimak…yes, his name is Taimak.) is far from your average teenager/early twenties guy from New York City. Well above the Cobra-Kai on skill level, Leroy has devoted his mind, body and spirit to the ancient art of kung fu and must fulfill what his master refers to as the “Final Level.” According to his Splinter-like master, he must reach this final level in order to possess what is known as “The Glow,” a supernatural transcendence to a magical plane of energy that takes over your body. Reaching this final level must be done on your own and that’s something that is out of Leroy’s comfort zone. However, his Master insists that it is what must be done to complete the cycle. Only when you embrace all of the facets of life can you break through the wall of mystery to achieve the glow.Reaching the final level and achieving the glow is a well-spun, albeit predictable, story. However it is the memorable characters throughout the film that outweigh the clichés. Taimak is perfectly cast as Bruce Leroy, capturing the quiet cadence and shyness of the physically gifted character perfectly. Outside of the dojo, Leroy is uncomfortable and practically socially phobic. And although approaching a Bruce Lee-like level mastery of the craft, Leroy is reluctant to use his gifts unless absolutely necessary. After an encounter with the gorgeous VJ (Video Jockey) Laura Charles (Vanity) and saving her life after a botched kidnapping, Leroy misplaces an important gift from his master at the encounter, and this, of course, leads to a second meeting. The kidnappers were sent by diminutive wanna-be mobster Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney), who is desperate to meet with Ms. Charles to push his girlfriend’s (Faith Prince)new music video for heavy airplay on her hit music video show 7th Heaven, a hipper version of American Bandstand.
Not to be outdone by Arkadian is “Sho’Nuff,” the self-proclaimed Shogun of Harlem complete with costume and army of matching bad guys. Sho‘Nuff is easily one of the most memorable villains of the 80s, mostly because actor Julius J. Carry III plays the material he’s working with as if it’s Shakespeare. He is a remarkably large guy dressed as an urban samurai,walking the streets of Harlem with his devoted gang wanting one thing: total supremacy. In Sho’s first scene he interrupts a Bruce Lee Movie Marathon in a run-down theater where Bruce Leroy is eating popcorn with chopsticks! Classic. The only thing standing between Sho and his rightful place as the leader in the kung fu pantheon of NYC is Bruce Leroy. First ‘Nuff and his goons make an unannounced visit to Leroy’s modest teaching dojo where they try to bait him into fighting but nothing comes of it. Leroy is determined to respect the code he lives by and that is a rare thing even by “B-Movie” standards.When Laura is kidnapped from her own studio and shown some laughable clips of the video they want her to display on her show, Leroy bursts in as a ninja and saves her again. Arkadian is outraged and now wants revenge on both Laura and Leroy. After Leroy’s family business is torn apart by Sho’Nuff and his thugs, he must reevaluate his entire mission and code of violence. Laura even tries to hire Leroy to be his bodyguard, but he turns her down even though she’s a ridiculously hot VJ that totally shows her boobs in most of her other movies after this one…but I digress. With one wanting Leroy out of the way and the other with his eye on Ms. Charles, Sho’Nuff and Arkadian join forces to bring down their respected enemies in one final showdown. And the slow build for the final scenes are good enough to keep the story rolling. Will Laura and Leroy get together? Who will become the real Shogun of Harlem? Will Leroy reach the Final Level? It may sound hokey but I love every cheese-filled minute of the movie. After all, this isn’t Oscar bait.What finally ensues is a massive battle on a neon dance floor, where Leroy thrashes a bunch of mercenaries. But when he is down for the count, Leroy’s faithful students rush in to save the day. It’s a classic ninja melee with one of the all-time greatest music producers in charge of the soundtrack. As kids, my brother and I would try and memorize the moves that Leroy’s students did but usually just wound up breaking things. It’s movies like this and The Karate Kid and at least a dozen others why the 80s had such a ridiculous boom of kids taking karate classes. I am guilty as well but quit after I realized there are not that many famous Jewish kung fu masters throughout history. I really only wanted “Daniel-San’s” cool headband anyway. Realizing they are out-matched, Arkadian with Laura in tow lead Leroy to a warehouse-basement type lot where the final conflict for NYC supremacy is on between Bruce Leroy and Sho’Nuff and it is as good a fight all these years later.
When we finally see that Sho (we can call him “Sho,” right?) is the opposite side of the coin of Leroy in achieving the Final Level, it is apparent that he too is searching for the Glow. The first few “rounds” are setting us up the way most fight finales do but when the Glow becomes part of the fight it looks like two Jedi radiating light without sabers, and Leroy proves once and for all that HE is the Master. The Final Level was just that of believing in himself. There are three things that you can always count on in a memorable 80s flick: the guy always gets the impossible to get girl, the good guy wins the big fight at the end, and finally the main narrative is just a simple everyday homily. With quotable dialogue beyond my allotted word count and a soundtrack from the King of Motown, The Last Dragon gets my “Reboot Ready” Stamp of approval.Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!