File this one in the So Bad It’s Good section of the video store in your mind. Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon (1985) is a music-laden martial arts send-up that is better than it has any right to be. Imagine if Marvel’s Iron Fist were shot in the 80’s as a blaxploitation film, and you’ll cut pretty close to the essence of The Last Dragon.
Taimak is Leroy Green, who goes by the somewhat derisive sobriquet Bruce Leroy, a young black man who wears Asian peasant dress and dreams of obtaining a level of martial arts mastery known as “the glow.” After he completes his training, his pranksterish sensei sends him in search of the elusive master that will help him achieve the glow.
While in a theater, watching a Bruce Lee film and eating his popcorn with chopsticks (as one does), he is accosted by the infamous Sho’nuff (Julius Carry III), the self-described Shogun of Harlem, a bad ass martial artist with an ego as big as his attitude. After beating up half the theater, Sho’nuff challenges Leroy to a fight, but our hero refuses and leaves, returning home to his family where he is greeted by endless barbs from his younger, streetwise brother.
Meanwhile, local singer and popular veejay Laura Charles, played by former Prince Protege’ Vanity (the late Denise Matthews) is being nagged by a two-bit promoter named Eddie Arkadian (Christopher Murney), who wants Laura to play his girlfriend’s latest video on her show. As his girlfriend, Angela Viracco (Faith Prince) is a third rate Cyndi Lauper wannabe, Laura rightly refuses, and that’s when Arkadian takes the gloves off and resorts to thuggery to get his way.
Passing by while Laura is being kidnapped by Arkadian’s thugs, Leroy comes to the rescue, dispatching them Bruce Lee style.
What follows is a mixed bag of craziness that could only have come from the 80’s, with a finale to rival Enter the Dragon, as Leroy and his martial arts students (which includes a young, pint-sized Ernie Reyes, Jr. (The Last Electric Knight)) fight against Arkadian’s goons, among them Sho’nuff and his entourage.
In his final battle with Sho’nuff, Leroy learns that the only true master is one’s own self and gets the glow, which is exactly what it sounds like, enabling him to defeat Sho’nuff and rescue the girl. Arkadian gets arrested, and all is right with the world.
I really like this movie. It could have, and probably should have, been a complete train wreck. The plot is utterly ridiculous, and we never get any context for Leroy’s quest to obtain the glow, meeting him near the end of his journey, not the beginning. But the film’s reverence for the source material that inspired it—in this case Bruce Lee movies—is really what saves it in the end.
There are also some neat cameos I didn’t notice the first time around, including William H. Macy as Laura’s stage manager, and Keisha Knight-Pulliam (The Cosby Show) as Leroy’s little sister. And you couldn’t do a martial arts movie in the 80’s without Ernie Reyes, Jr. And did I mention it features the music of El Debarge?
Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon has charm, music, humor, and some great fight scenes. I give this one two fists way up. Now kiss my Converse!