Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Movies I Grew Up With: The Last Dragon



If you've been around here often enough, you have come across a post or two singing the praises of Bruce Lee. He's had a presence in my life almost as long as I've had one. I can recall almost nothing of my time in kindergarten or the years before that. However, two hours that occurred somewhere in the stretch remain clear as the keyboard on which I'm typing. These are the two hours I spent in a movie theater with both my mother and father, a truly rare occurrence, watching Enter the Dragon. I've been a Lee disciple ever since. As such, I was given to fantasies of being able to do the things he could do. My dreams were frequently of me saving the day using my superior martial arts ability. Over time, I saw all five of the movies most closely associated with his legacy, plus a good deal of his work as Kato on TV's "The Green Hornet." The settings employed by these productions are the ones in which I envisioned myself during my flights of fancy. In reality, I was an inner-city kid in Queens, NY. How might it look for me to dole out justice in my own environment with my own feet and fists of fury. In 1985, I got an answer.

Ironically, my answer came from a sector of my childhood I though to be entirely detached from Bruce Lee: 80s music. It was a time when both pop and R&B were heavily synthesized and beginning to embrace rap as an occasional collaborator. Recognizing an opportunity, Motown mogul Berry Gordy commissioned a project that was to be an urban martial arts flick under the banner of the not-so-prolific Motown films and slapped his name on the title. The music angle, as well as the leading lady, were selling points for this film. With the Gordy name already providing credibility for the former, the latter was needed. For this, former Prince muse Vanity was employed. No one knew whether or not she could act. This was not as important as the fact she had name-recognition and was the girl of the moment for many a young boy who might have caught a glimpse of her performing sexually suggestive songs while wearing only lingerie. This was to be a family film, for sure, but catering to the hormonal urges of teenagers is never bad for business.Tapping into your target audience's carnal desires might get kids into theaters and cool tunes might dazzle the ear, but whether we can identify with the hero is what will determine if it resonates. Though Bruce Lee had been deceased for more than a decade by this point, he was still an extremely relevant figure to boys everywhere. A large number of us had three types of poster up on the walls of our bedrooms. One was of our favorite athlete, another of our favorite musician, and the other was of Bruce Lee.

I had this one.

Armed with this knowledge, The Last Dragon, or Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon as it is also known, brings us the story of Leroy Green, better known as Bruce Leroy played by the unknown Taimak. What a genius way to show us kids, the ones who had to beg their parents to pay for tickets, that this movie was not only for us, but for the legendary Lee, as well. It didn't matter if Taimak could act, or not. He couldn't. There was a much more pressing question. Could he fight? He could.

Yes, the sparks really fly in this one.
The story is mostly about Bruce Leroy trying to save Laura Charles (Vanity) from the clutches of gangster/would-be music mogul Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney). Let's pause there a sec. Arkadian is probably the most fabulously 80s name a character could have. Back to Laura Charles. Not only is she a singer, but also hosts a Soul-Train-esque dance show. This serves as an easy injection spot for much of the music. There are a number of subplots and some characters thrown in for comic relief. To be honest, only one of these makes us sit up and take notice. That one is the quest of Sho'Nuff (Julius J. Carry III), the Shogun of Harlem. He is a villain in the movie, but far from typical. He has no grand visions of taking over the world, nor is he out for money. He isn't even out for revenge against our hero. All he wants is to beat him in a fight. Sho'Nuff is merely out to prove he's the baddest man in town by challenging everyone in his path. Rumor has it that Leroy is the one guy that can beat him. Naturally, Sho'Nuff actively seeks out a chance to tangle with Bruce Leroy. This isn't easy since our hero is the peaceful type who views martial arts as a path to enlightenment. As we gather from the earliest parts of the movie, Sho'Nuff will not be denied his chance. And right away, he establishes himself as an unforgettable character. He is such because of the deliciously over the top performance of Julius J. Carry III. Carry delivers every line like an urgent command. This includes the questions. His entourage, all decked out in futuristic karate ghees and skilled in the art of call-and-response, obeys dutifully by answering with his own name to whatever he says. When he asks, "Am I the meanest?" The inevitable reply is "Sho'Nuff!" He gets the same answer when he next asks "Am I the prettiest?" On the page, or stretched across a computer monitor, this might sound like an unsavory hunk of cheese. In Carry's hands it becomes sublime ridiculousness, I would not be surprised to find out that his bug-eyed, scowling, growling theatrics were a major influence in the career of Samuel L. Jackson. In particular, I'm referring to Jackson's iconic portrayal of hitman Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction.

"Am I the baddest mofo low down 'round this town?"
Say 'what' again!
In 2015, The Last Dragon, comes off as hokey 80s fun. If you didn't grow up with it, watching it periodically along the way, this might be too cheesy for you. The fashion is dated, but still nostalgic. The humor is goofy and occasionally comes from stereotypes. The area that fares worst, surprisingly, is the music thanks to a dearth of memorable songs. This is a bit strange considering Motown had their hands all over the soundtrack. One measly hit is all that came of this, DeBarge's "Rhythm of the Night." The rest of it is a generic, over-synthesized glob of dance tunes. It makes it easy to see why this era was a downtime in the company's history. The main plot and most of the various subplots are perfunctory, at best, but combine with numerous nods sprinkled throughout make it a reverential homage to Bruce Lee. All of those things are nice, but they would sink if not for the wonderful dynamic between Bruce Leroy and Sho'Nuff. As ridiculous as their interactions are, they drive the movie and make indelible tracks along the way. There is a silliness inherent in having a character named Sho'Nuff, short for "sure enough," for the uninitiated. There is even more silliness in having him tell the hero "Kiss my Converse!" Same goes for having him ask anyone within earshot "Am I the...," but they are things I've never forgotten. Even when there are years between viewings The Last Dragon remains a vivid memory. Isn't being something impossible to forget what filmmakers strive for? Sho'Nuff.

 

Check out these other Movies I Grew Up With:


Yesterday, I said Heather of That Film Girl watched 30 Best Picture Winners. I lied. She's watched them all!

8 comments:

  1. OH... OH... OH.... OH... OH.... Man oh man! I fucking love this film. I grew up on it and I watch it whenever it's on. My favorite part of the film is where little Ernie Reyes Jr. goes all out and kick some ass as there's this shot of him flying in the air and does this pirouette kick on two guys. I marked the fuck out for that moment.

    I also loved the part where got pissed when he sees Johnny gets his ass kicked as I was like... "Oh, you gonna die motherfucker! you're so gonna fucking die!!!"

    Oh, and I bet you know that both Chazz Palminteri and William H. Macy had some memorable small roles in that film.

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    1. Dammit! When I started writing this I meant to point out Chazz and WHM, then I forgot about it. Great call on your part.

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  2. That has to be the most unthreatening martial arts poster ever! The look on his face is more "Hey buddy! How ya doin'?" than "Watch out sucker!" This is a new one on me and looks like fun cheesy 80's dreck. Your talking about the music reminded me of Fear City, an awful 80's movie with Tom Berenger, Billy Dee Williams and in a horrendously bad performance Melanie Griffith. It is chock-a-block with equally ersatz 80's musical glop.

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    1. Lol, never looked at the poster that way, but you're right. This is a pure 'hood classic, or a movie that has a rather large cult following, in cinematic vernacular. I wouldn't call it dreck, obviously, but it sits at 20% on the tomatometer, for whatever you think that's worth. As for the music, like I said it's extra disappointing because Motown did it. It was clearly a case of them following trends instead of creating them as they had in the 60s.

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  3. This is a fun series Dell, glad you highlight movies that mean a lot to you growing up. Haven't seen this one, not really into martial arts movies generally. I have seen Enter The Dragon though, as my brother was quite obsessed w/ Bruce Lee!

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    1. Thanks a lot. Even though this uses lots of martial arts tropes, this is not at all your typical genre flick. If you can appreciate 80s cheese, give it a shot.

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  4. I love this movie! This was one of my "saw it so many times I wore out the VHS" movies. Carry's over-the-top Sho'Nuff is fantastic. And even as cheesy as this movie is, to this day the moment is still awesome when Leroy comes up out of the water for the last time, turns to Sho'Nuff and says "I am." (cue title song) Love it!

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