The Last Dragon

Kiss the Converse of Sho Nuff
★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
1985
Director: 
Michael Schultz
Starring: 
Taimak, Vanity, Julius Carry, Christopher Murney, Leo O’Brien
The Setup: 
Black kung fu trainee becomes embroiled in various hoo-ha as he strives to attain “the glow.”
Discussion: 

So I am at the very last stop on the A train, which means I always get a seat on the way downtown, and many of the reviews you read on this site are written as I ride. Since this is the last stop this is where the guys come on and sweep out the train and change the ads and shit. I tell you this because I just had to chase the garbage guy down the platform and pick my notes for this movie out of his dustpan, because he had swept them up like a flash as I was still getting settled.

Which brings us directly to The Last Dragon. Oh my God, I swear it is Cruella De Vil sitting a few seats over, straining her face as she peers into a makeup mirror. Anyway, someone wrote me and said he was shocked, SHOCKED that this movie was not featured on my site, and that I’d better get my bitch-ass in gear or I oughta hang up right now. Plus he said it was a misguided black kung fu movie produced by Berry Gordy and featuring a lot of cheesy 80s R&B. So obviously it shot straight to the stop of my list.

We open with these credits that show our hero doing kung fu moves in slow motion. During this sequence we discover that the star of this movie is named Taimak [sounds like a miracle cleaner that gets even the toughest stains off your finest neckties] and VANITY. Yes, Vanity, formerly of Vanity 6 and ex Prince protégé.

This transitions into a scene where Taimak, playing Leroy, is training with his Pat Morita-knockoff Asian zen master. Isn’t it amazing that even Pat Morita has a knockoff? So non-Pat shoots arrows at Leroy and he deflects all of them, but catches one. And it turns out that was the very one he was supposed to catch, because it has a blue band, and can be redeemed for valuable prizes, like this Schwinn banana-seat 10-speed. This is evidence that Leroy “knows without knowing,” which means his work with non-Pat is done and he has to go seek another master and attain the final level whereupon he will attain “The Glow.” In this review, we will refer to “the glow” as “the Hi-Pro Glow.”

Guess what? All this training is taking place on a boat docked in New York City! Shit, you just have no idea what all is going on in this city. He proceeds directly to Harlem where he attends a screening of some Bruce Lee film. But first of all, we note this outfit that he walks around town in; a big straw coolie hat with a navy blue Asian-style jacket. While is this happening we hear this 80s-electro-R&B song “Inside You,” performed by genuine funk God and all-round superman Willie Hutch. It’s vaguely interesting to hear him singing this electro song, since everything else he does is so guitar-driven, but I don’t think I need to hear it again. Anyway, so this Bruce Lee film is first interrupted by these two break dancers who start dancing in the aisles. They are such poor break-dancers—they really just move their arms around stupidly—that it’s hard to believe they would try to woo a crowd by interrupting their film. Anyway, soon their boombox is smashed and we return to watching, when suddenly the film starts again and the big evil gangster-dude and his posse walk in. This is Sho Nuff, who demands recognition as “The shogun of Harlem.” He is soon told by this cute kid, vaguely in the Gary Coleman mold, that Bruce Lee-Roy is the best fighter in Harlem. That’s right, That’s our Leroy he’s talking about, who is all spiritually centered but still so rude as to not remove his huge hat in the movie theater. So Sho Nuff threatens Leroy, but he won't fight because he’s all at one with the universe and shit, but then the rest of the theater gets up and starts to fight, including is big, stupid-looking [I mean that as a compliment] BEAR who wears a tank top barely covering his all-round girth [below]. Did guys really dress like this in Harlem in the mid-80s? While I was serving blitzes at the brunch buffet in Plymouth, Michigan there were scantily-clad mammoth hunks running around New York? Oh dear, talk about a life wasted. Anyway, this movie posits an alternate Harlem in which the African-American public trains in the martial arts, are ruled by badass kung fu shogun masters, and unleash their skills at mid-day showings of Bruce Lee movies. Someday I’m sure this hidden period of our nation’s heritage will be fully covered in Black History Month study guides.

But let us meet our bad guys. We are introduced to them in the lair of Eddie Arkadian, the video game mogul of New York [Arkadian… get it?]. He has this goon who used to be a prize fighter and keeps a deadly mutant fish in this tank in their lair, a story element that goes absolutely nowhere. Then there’s Angie, this singer in the Cyndi Lauper mold [except that she is apparently 37], who Eddie is trying to turn into a huge star. However it seems that the only thing holding her back from megastardom is that her video has not yet been played on this American Bandstand-type video show hosted by Vanity as Laura Charles. Vanity’s “Video Hot Pick… and it is HOT” is DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night,” which we are treated to in its near entirety. You may be surprised to discover that DeBarge is a Motown artist, knowing [as you do now] that this movie was produced by Berry Gordy and is one of the releases of Motown’s ill-guided film division. In fact, the full title is Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. Anyway, so the cross-merch is solidly in place. Vanity comes off stage to have her hair ratted EVEN FURTHER than it already is, and while this happens she is assailed by this guy J.J. in this bizzaro jacket, trying to get her to have dinner with Eddie, and she refuses, but you’re like; “Is that William H. Macy? That REALLY looks like William Macy,” and guess what, folks—it IS William Macy. I’d love to hear how he explained that to David Mamet, but then again he has recently shared the screen with BOTH Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence, so much as we love and respect him, dude obviously knows a paycheck when he smells one.

Anyway Vanity refuses and goes onstage to sing some song [and she has a pretty nice and unique voice], then leaves the theater to get in her limo. Who should happen to be there but Leroy, and she is obviously transfixed by his peaceful energy. I should note that although this movie takes place in New York and was supposedly filmed in New York, VERY FEW of the exterior scenes look like New York. Unless there’s just a lot more giant freeways running right through the city that I don't know about. In the credits they say it was filmed in New York, but they “thank” the cities of Chicago and L.A… and like with Mahogany, I’m gonna guess that some of this was shot in Detroit. Anyway, turns out the baddies have switched the limo drivers and are taking Vanity to meet Eddie, and after they have driven a not-inconsiderable distance they stop to let on more thugs? Or something? But then Leroy is there [dude must have run 3 miles in 2 minutes, without even knowing there was trouble. Oh that’s right, he “knows without knowing”] and unleashes some nasty whup-ass on the thugs, says hi to Vanity, then vanishes into the night, like all mysterious heroes.

Then we see that Leroy teaches at a martial arts school—teaching all those Harlem residents who are dying to learn kung fu, perpetuating this special martial arts society in Harlem that has been lost to history, as we have discussed earlier. Then Sho Nuff and his posse show up to try to force Leroy to fight. Of course Leroy chooses the path of nonviolence—the BORING path of nonviolence—and even gets down to kiss the Converse of Sho Nuff. Leroy then goes home to a Jeffersons-style family dinner—he arrives through the window, like Spider-Man—and starts blessing the spirits or whoever for his food and whatnot. This scene serves no purpose except to introduce Leroy’s family and establish that the dad owns a pizza parlor, and also for Leroy to see Vanity on TV and realize that Richie knows where she is and can help him to find her. Next we are with Leroy and Richie in the pizza parlor with the 12-year-old Richie dispensing some relatively salacious sex instruction to Leroy. Richie finally agrees to take Leroy to Vanity’s show. Once Richie leaves Leroy outside the back of the building beside the stage door, you will notice that there just happens to be a ‘crate’ that converts awfully well into a stool just outside.

But Vanity was kidnapped by the baddies, who are forcing her to watch Angie’s video. It’s a little amusing to see their idea of an intentionally bad song amidst all the unintentionally [but delightfully] bad songs. Let’s take a little side trip to discuss Vanity: I really liked her! She’s really charming! I’d love to see more of her, and her charm is the reason that Action Jackson is now near the top of my list. As I mentioned earlier, she had a much stronger singing voice than I recalled, and she’s a unique presence because during the scenes where she’s just shooting the shit, she’s so gorgeous you can’t believe she’s just talking normally. I am 110% behind Vanity! Anyway, she’s not going to play the video, so they’re going to KILL her. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but what does? Then Leroy bursts through the door in his ninja outfit [how did he find her?] and Eddie says “Who the hell is this guy? We didn’t order takeout.” Leroy kicks the asses of all the thugs and Eddie vows vengeance on Leroy. And all of this started because he wants to get a music video played on some idiotic show.

Then we have a brief interlude at the disco where we hear this particularly ludicrous song “Sukiyaki Hot,” and then Sho Nuff comes to Leroy’s Dad’s pizza parlor and busts it all up in order to draw Leroy out, and when Leroy shows up Richie calls him a coward, which we can tell mentally haunts him because we hear the Richie’s damning voice again and again as Leroy punches his bag [his boxing bag; he does not engage in genital self-mutilation] in frustration. Meanwhile Eddie is holding tryouts for new thugs, one of which is the DELIGHTFUL man below, who communicates only in DOG BARKS and head-butts! WHERE can I find a man like this? This is my TOTAL new BF. Actually there are a few fairly decent random movie hunks on hand, including this mustachoid white dork who is inexplicably a member of Sho Nuff’s posse. Then Leroy busts into the fortune cookie shop of Sum Dum Goy [oh my God, isn’t that FUNNY?] to meet the fellow he thinks is to be his new master, and finds out there’s just a computer that spits out fortune cookies! Then he goes back to the Pat-alike from the beginning who tells him that he doesn’t need a master anymore because the answers are within himself!

So Eddie has taken over the video club and has Richie and Vanity hostage, and there’s this big [and wayyy too long] showdown where Leroy kicks the asses of all the multiple thugs [including my bald mustachioed sweetie], and then who should show up but Sho Nuff! I actually think that maybe Eddie and Sho Nuff teamed up while I was drifting in and out of sleep, which was happening toward the end. But I WAS awake for the moment where Richie escapes from the ropes binding him by BREAK-DANCING! Brothers, sisters, break-dancing has the power to save a life!

So they end up in some warehouse [all disco/TV studios have vast warehouses connected to them], where Sho Nuff and Leroy go at it. Turns out that Sho Nuff has the glow, the RED glow, in his hands, and pretty much mops up the floor with Leroy. Then Leroy has some motivational flashbacks and then he has attained the Hi-Pro Glow, which as everyone knows is yellow. And now his arms are all multi-exposed, and we know he’s going to kick some ass, which he does. Then Vanity’s producer and hairdresser burst in and tell her she’s late for her show! Not only that, but her hair’s a horror!

Okay, so the movie’s over, and I think “Hmm, bonus features, what could this possibly be?” thinking I’d find just a trailer, but no, there is a director commentary! And I listened to an hour of it, but it didn’t say much of interest. Michael Schultz, the director of this film, also directed Krush Groove, Disorderlies, Car Wash and Cooley High. And come to find out that Julius Carry, Sho Nuff in this movie, played angel dust addict Bucky in Disco Godfather! That would actually make a delightful double-feature with this film.

Overall, a good but not great bad movie. It has the outrageous costumes, the bad/fun music, the ludicrous dialogue… but it goes on a tad too long and is too self-aware. This is a self-conscious parody, so lines like the “we didn’t order takeout” and Angie’s music videos are SUPPOSED to be funny, which to me is far less interesting than when something is supposed to be serious and just ended up funny. Even something like Voyage of the Rock Aliens works a little better because, although it’s supposed to be funny, it’s so misguided and not funny in the ways they think it is, that it’s funny. But this one will certainly keep you engaged [at least until the last 20 minutes, when it really starts to drag], features the charming Vanity, and has a lot of amusingly trashy 80s synth-pop hits. And that’s good enough for me.

Should you watch it: 

Yeah, when you’re in the mood for something really wacky.

RELATED FILMS:
DISCO GODFATHER features the guy who plays Sho Nuff, and is so similar in tone that they’d make a great double feature.