Sunday, December 1, 2013
The Last Dragon (1985)... Jak's Pick for December
Here's where I confess that I've only sort of seen the movie I picked for this month. And here's where you ask how one "only sort of sees" a film. And here's where I answer that by saying I was young, I was drunk, it was after a wild party, and I was trying to crash on some stranger's couch - trying, because the couch was in front of a television playing a late night movie. This in itself wasn't special, as I found myself in that situation at least a couple dozen times through my teens and early 20's. This one particular time, though, it was The Last Dragon playing and I kept seeing and hearing things from this movie that made me struggle through the semi-conscious haze and say, "Hold up, I shouldn't miss this." I don't remember whose house it was anymore, I don't remember anybody who was at the party or what it was even for, and I don't remember nearly as much about any of the other movies from the other times I'd found myself in that spot, so I had a feeling this was probably a movie worth revisiting.
Leroy Green is training as his teacher shoots arrows at him, which he breaks as though they're mere distractions from his routine. When Leroy catches a blue one instead of breaking it, his teacher informs him that his training is complete and he is prepared for the Final Level, where he may attain The Glow. He then tells Leroy to find the wisest sage in the universe, Sum Dum Goy, who will serve as his new teacher, and sends him off with a medallion that he says once belonged to Bruce Lee.
As Leroy makes his way through New York, he stops off in a theater to watch a Bruce Lee movie, which is soon interrupted by Sho'nuff, the Shogun of Harlem, and his cronies. A child calls out to the Shogun, "I know who can beat you!" Sho'nuff, angry, asks who, and the child tells him "Bruce Leroy, that's who!" and then points at Leroy. Apparently, Leroy is the only thing that stands between Sho'nuff and total supremacy. Leroy's calm responses anger Sho'nuff more and more, until he challenges the entire theater to a fight, which they're more than happy to oblige. Leroy leaves and Sho'nuff calls out that he's going to get him.
The movie then reminds us it's from the 80s by way of a music video dance show at a club called 7th Heaven for a few minutes. While this is going on, the sleazy Eddie Arkadian sends his man JJ to talk to the host Laura in an attempt to get his girlfriend Angela's video on the show. Laura turns down the meeting, then performs a song with a breakdown that has to be seen to be believed. When Eddie learns that his attempt has failed, he decides to kidnap Laura. As she is signing autographs, Leroy passes and catches her eye, and she catches his. As she gets in her limousine, an electric piano plays to let us know that love is happening.
The limousine is being driven by a kidnapper, though. When it stops to pick up two more criminals, Laura tries to fight them off and Leroy shows up to help. He beats them all up and they drive away without Laura. He helps her gather her things, flags a cab, and then disappears into the night. She picks up the medallion he accidentally leaves behind. He's distraught when he comes back to find it again.
Eddie's goons show up at Eddie's and tell him tall tales about the twenty or thirty bodyguards with clubs and chains that roughed them up. He sends his ex-prize fighter, Rock, to bring her back.
Leroy is teaching his class when Sho'nuff shows up with his entourage. They try to goad him into a fight, and when that doesn't work, they threaten to kill Johnny, one of his students, if he doesn't follow the Shogun's order to "kiss my Converse". When he obeys, Sho'nuff kicks him in the face and leaves.
The next day, Leroy has breakfast with his mother, father, younger sister, and brother Richie. Richie is keen on winning a dance competition to get a date with Laura. Leroy sees Laura on television and recognizes her. He follows his brother to find out where he can find her and the two end up at the competition.
Posing as a sound technician, Rock kidnaps Laura in a video truck as Leroy waits for his brother to return. Seeing this, Leroy attempts to act and is too late. He does find a clipboard that Rock dropped that says "Eddie Arkadian Productions" on it.
We finally see Angela's video for her song "Dirty Boy", and it's pretty wretched. Laura watches it with disinterest. After it's over, she tells Eddie that she isn't going to play the video on her show. Just as Eddie's about to get rough, Leroy bursts in, takes out all of the henchmen, and tells Eddie to back off before dunking him in the fishtank. Leroy gets away with Laura.
At Laura's apartment, she gives him back his medallion, now tied to a ribbon. She flirts with him and he awkwardly leaves. Leroy walks through New York and finds Sum Dum Goy's fortune cookie shop. Three Asian teens refuse to let him in, though, and even take his hat.
Meanwhile, at Leroy's father's pizza restaurant, Sho'nuff shows up looking for Leroy. He and his goons wreck the shop and Sho'nuff leaves, telling Leroy's father to pass on the message that Leroy has to fight. Leroy shows up shortly after and his brother rebuffs him for not standing up to Sho'nuff when he had the chance.
Leroy angrily trains until he falls to his knees, exhausted. In the middle of meditating, Laura shows up and asks if he is interested in being her bodyguard. He flatly declines and she leaves, annoyed at his distance.
Eddie and Rock hire new goons and we're treated to Angela and her dancers rehearsing another song. After they leave, she tells him she doesn't want him to kill anybody and then calls him out on his selfishness. After an argument, she tells him off and leaves. Later on, Eddie hires Sho'nuff to take out Leroy.
Leroy runs into Laura and apologizes for his attitude earlier. In her car, he describes The Glow to her, then nervously and very awkwardly admits that he doesn't know how to be with a woman. They get to 7th Heaven and she plays clips from Bruce Lee movies on the screen as more electro Motown music plays. He takes cues from the romantic clips and kisses her as his brother witnesses it from the rafters. One of the clips then gives Leroy an idea on how to enter Sum Dum Goy's place in disguise, and so he leaves. Leroy's brother shows up to yell at Laura, then witnesses her being kidnapped once again by Rock and Eddie.
Leroy's ploy seems to fail pretty quickly as the three teens unmask him in seconds. After he convinces them that they're mistaken about his identity, they invite him to play a game of craps with them - a game he obviously isn't familiar with.
Angela comes by Leroy's training school looking for Leroy and talks to Johnny, telling him that Leroy should stay away from 7th Heaven because Eddie's out to get him. Meanwhile, at 7th Heaven, Eddie has tied up Laura and Richie.
Leroy teaches the teens how to play craps "the way we play in Harlem", which involves a hopscotch outline. When he shows his medallion to try and see Sum Dum Goy, they keep it and lead him out of the building. He kicks the door in and starts getting rough. The teens show him that Sum Dum Goy is really just an automated computer, mass-producing fortunes for their cookies. Leroy confronts his teacher, who tells him that he needs no master, and that the medallion was just a belt buckle. Then the teacher leaves to visit his mother in Miami. Leroy goes to confront Eddie at 7th Heaven after locking Johnny in a closet to keep him from getting in the way. Johnny is freed by a child and they run to follow Leroy.
At 7th Heaven, Leroy is confronted by Eddie's newly hired goons and beats them all easily, until a giant wrestler named Goliath starts gaining ground against him. Leroy's students rush into the club at that point and overtake the rest of the goons. Eddie and Rock make off to the back with Laura, and Richie dances his way out of his ropes. Really.
Leroy follows them into the storage area in the back of the club, followed by Richie, who knocks out Rock and then gets caught by one of Sho'nuff's henchmen. Leroy knocks him out and, soon after, Sho'nuff appears, ready for battle. They fight and, after the obligatory kung fu back-and-forth, Leroy harnesses The Glow and wins. Eddie pulls out his gun and fires. Leroy catches the bullet in his mouth and takes down Eddie, hanging him up on a chain as the police arrive to take him away. Leroy gets the girl, the end.
In a movie filled with over-the-top acting, Julius J. Carry III, portraying Sho'nuff, sets himself in his own league. Carry sprays ham on the little scenery he doesn't chew up completely, in all the best ways. On the other hand, Leroy's actor, the martial artist Taimak, was taught how to act on the set of this film. Where this would normally hurt a movie, I felt that Taimak's understated and slightly wooden delivery lent itself well to the character of Leroy, emphasizing how removed from typical youth society he is and also making a great counterpoint to the fever pitch of jive and bluster that most of the other characters maintain. Leroy telling the Asians, "Oh no, I had too much already," when they're trying to get him to smoke and drink killed me, and I believe it wouldn't have worked if it had been given to a more trained actor.
The filmmakers seemed to aim to cover multiple genres with The Last Dragon, specifically kung fu, action, blaxploitation, comedy, and musical. Unlike many that attempt this sort of gumbo approach and come off as uneven, I think this one succeeds - well, for the most part, as the music numbers largely feel out of place and too long. This was certainly the result of having Motown Records founder Berry Gordy as producer, and director Michael Schultz who directed Krush Groove earlier that year, which the music scenes at 7th Heaven had me flashing back to more than once.
This movie references race a lot, and often in dated ways. This comes as no surprise in a blaxploitation pic whose entire premise hook is ascribing an Asian role to a black character. I did notice that often the most racist jokes were delivered by characters of the target race - the Asian teens at Sum Dum Goy mocking stereotypical Asian speech and mannerisms, Johnny calling himself "Oriental", and Leroy saying of blacks that "we all just look alike". On the other hand, there's a lot of "coolie" being thrown around haphazardly, so make no mistake, it's not the most sensitive film out there. Beyond the racial aspect, everything in the plot's all been done before and that's clearly the way it likes things. Shorten or cut out some of the music performances and the execution of the story would have a near perfect pacing and flow in my opinion.
And now, like so many aspects of the movie, I've covered something of a spectrum myself in watching it. It's a very different movie from what I remembered it to be when I was young and plastered, and, unlike most movies I remember liking while wasted and/or young, I ended up enjoying this one on a straighter viewing.
Okay, it's your turn, Angie and Noel. Did you find The Glow, or just a couple of filthy Converse?
I had never heard of The Last Dragon before Jak picked it for the exchange, and when I heard the phrase "martial arts musical", I knew I was in for something strange. I just didn't realize how strange. It starts off well enough, showing our hero performing moves just as we saw Sho Kosugi do at the beginning of the Ninja films. The music is clearly from Motown records, and while it may not be the normal music you'd expect to hear behind someone performing martial arts, it works well as Taimak performs them in a way reminiscent of dance. It gave me the impression that this combination just might work. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie didn't follow through.
The film can't seem to decide if it wants to be a tribute to martial arts films with the twist of an African American protagonist, an outrageous parody of the same with Blaxploitation elements, or just a vehicle to push Motown Records music. We have scenes where Leroy is trying to learn his martial arts, follow the ways of his master, and grow as a person. Then we have moments where Sho'nuff and his thugs trash things while spewing racial slurs. Then we have to sit through music videos, some of them parodies, some just there to say, "Hey, isn't DeBarge great? Buy his new hit single!" These rapid changes left me unable to really settle into the film and enjoy the ride, and definitely left me unable to really care about our main characters at all.
As such I'm left with the ability to enjoy certain moments or characters and not really care about the plot. I find most of the scenes with Angela really amusing, with her "Madonna meets Cyndi Lauper" parody music performances and her over-the-top outfits. I also was pleasantly surprised to see her stand up for herself and walk away from Eddie. Something about the fact that Richie is always wearing leather pants adds an extra bit of amusement to his "mature for his age" personality. And there are funny moments to be found when the movie just completely lets go and is completely silly. It's just that those over-the-top moments cheapen the more serious ones.
Any moment with the character of Laura Charles had me flashing back to my viewing of Krush Groove, a film we may or may not ever cover here. I didn't realize this was made by the same director, but I'm not surprised. That film is a loose biopic of Def Jam creator Russell Simmons, but quickly becomes a vehicle to try to make you fall in love with Sheila E, and instead just makes you incredibly tired of her. Vanity is better used here, and a better actress than Sheila, but still not a particularly strong supporting character. Taimak himself is an incredibly weak lead, much better at his martial arts than his acting, so between the two of them, the film becomes tedious at parts.
This film is perhaps the most fun as a way to spot cameos, between a tiny Keshia Knight playing Leroy's sister, Ernie Reyes Jr suddenly showing up near the end to join the big fight, or, for a Parker Lewis fan like me, seeing B. J. Barie appear as one of Richie's friends. It seems like a film best experienced in moments rather than as a full dose. I could see myself replaying some of these clips, but not really wanting to watch the whole film over again.
Before I sit down to watch the The Last Dragon, I wanted to take a moment to say that I've seen it before. Or at least the last hour or maybe the last half. All I know is that I didn't catch the beginning of the film and didn't even know what the title of it was for several years. This was about two decades ago, on an upper tier movie channel around '92-'93. My dad and I were big into Hong Kong cinema, including the works of a Mr. Bruce Lee, and random channel flipping brought me to this young black man who was even more deeply drawn to and driven by the inspiring image of Lee; shaping his body, his philosophy, the entire core of his life around the skills of his lost idol. It was a touching theme, one that inspired me to go out and start exercising. Which lasted about 20 minutes before I was plopped back in front of my Sega Genesis. I don't remember much else, aside from a goofy big bad guy at the end, and both sides developing these chi abilities with glowing lines drawn around their swinging limbs.
As I said, it wouldn't be until around '97-98, when I first gained regular access to the internet and sites like IMDB were already taking off, that I was able to find out what this film was. Even then, I lacked that extra kick to finally grab a copy and revisit it. That kick has now come. Will this film be the ultimate testament to the power of pure fandom dedication? Will it be dripping 80s cheese? Likely, it'll be both.
So let's slide that disc in and press play...
.........It would seem I have some gaps in my memory. I didn't remember that Leroy's fandom of Bruce Lee is just some background flavor to his already dedicated years of martial arts training, and instead of just being a lonely fanboy, he actually has his own school (which he teaches while clad in Lee's trademark yellow track suit). I didn't remember that the actual bad guy is a tiny bald white dude trying to put his girlfriend's music video on tv just so he can feel like he's accomplishing something. I didn't remember that Vanity is the host of said music video show and guides us through gloriously impractical dance numbers and video montages. I didn't remember that Mike Starr and William H. Macy are among the bad guy's thugs. I didn't remember that Ernie Reyes Jr., future star of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze and Surf Ninjas, shows up in the last half hour at all of 12-years-old and proceeds to mow his way through goons with his already blossoming skills and charm. Sure enough, Ernie Reyes Sr. was fight choreographer.
As Jak said about his experience, this is a very different film than what I remembered it being, and I was totally unprepared for where it would go. I knew Sho'nuff was wild, but Julius J. Carry III fumes with so much rage every frame he's in that heat ripples practically radiated from my television (though that might have just been the actual heat of my tv, as it's about 3 degrees in Minnesota please send help in the form of kindling and combustible papers). When his fingers kick into the Glow, with searing red energy and high voltage sparks, the performance from Carry III alone makes it one of the most convincing visual effects I've ever seen.
Sho'nuff is a wild character played in a wild way, but it helps that he's surrounded by a wild world in which to sell it. This is a world where Laura Charles can edit a music video on the fly from the booth of a dance club, while somehow also producing a song about a topic (The Glow) of which she's only just learned. This is a world where a video game magnate is named Eddie Arkadian, and he has a flesh eating fish in the middle of his living room. This is a world where Asian people acting like black people will make fun of a black person acting Asian. This is a world where "the baddest of the bad" evil henchmen auditions are a thing that happen.
This is a film where logic doesn't exist because that's not the point of any of it. This is a parable, this is a fantasy. It's not supposed to make sense or fit the confines of reality, as long as it stays true to the characters. And here it does. What Taimak lacks in star charisma and acting talent, he more than makes up for not just with his impressive physique and martial arts skills, but with his natural boyish charisma, which totally sells this kind young man eager to truly find his place beyond cultural boundaries he doesn't identify with. When he's knocked down, I felt it. When he comes awkward and giddily in love, I felt it. When he surges with the glow and finds the master within, I felt it. Leroy is a wonderful little character played in just the right way.
Just the right way is how I'd describe the film as a whole. This is one of those movies, like Hackers or Flash Gordon, that isn't easy to pin down as either good or bad, because it doesn't care. It just set out to be exactly the type of film it wanted to be, and pulls it off in just the right ways. When Sho'nuff crashes the movie theater, it's a garish madhouse, an exaggerated comic book filled with larger-than-life personalities projected against the restrained face of Bruce Lee on the screen. When we kick into music, we don't just get a tune on the soundtrack, we get fully produced dance number spectacles, and a Motown by way of Queen hero theme as asses are being handed out in the third act. We don't just get a villain, we get a crazed megalomaniac with a temper flaring his rage to a higher degree than his height, surrounded by people he failed to turn into superstars who would make him even richer, and a brutal warrior looking to fight the only person who refuses to fight him because he's a fighter dammit and fighting all he as to fight with. With a film like this, it's not hard to slip off the tracks. One way to go is Freaked, where you heap so much zaniness on top of zaniness that you're making it seem funnier and cleverer than it actually is by burying the majority of the stuff that isn't working. The other is That Which Came After Part 5 And Shall Not Be Named, where it had all the wild ideas and punchlines, but delivered with so little passion and so tonally off that they sink faster than a nickle in a roll of belly chub.
Here, they have interesting material. It's crazy material, completely out there, but it goes far enough to grab a viewer's attention without going so far as to become garish. And it's necessary as the plot is otherwise typical martial arts movie tropes, and it's through the bizarre that they become refreshed. And then it's given to people who care. A director with a good eye who knows how to have fun and keep the energy flowing without going so far over-the-top that it loses focus. A cast who bring all their characters to life, makes them interesting, and, most importantly never winks at how silly it all is. A catchy, danceable score that gives a rhythm to the fights and keeps the pace at a constant note.
I can't say this is a good film, but nor can I say it's bad. It is exactly the film it set out to be, and is so to an exceptional degree. If this type of thing isn't your bag, then this will probably be the equivalent of shoving your head into musty luggage that's been sitting in the attic so long that you don't know what's been living in it. But if this is your type of thing, then I think you'll have a damn good time watching it. I certainly did.
That light you see around my enthusiastically displayed thumbs up, Jak? That's from a flashlight, but let's just pretend like I've had years of training and am producing The Glow.
The last few months, I've tried to guess what you two's reactions to this month's film would be. I'm usually wrong. With this one, though, I nailed both impressions dead on. Maybe I've been doing this with both of you long enough now to have picked up on the more subtle nuances of the generalized criteria each of you employ. Maybe there's enough similarity between the approaches of the other mid-80s fare we've been viewing recently that it was sort of telegraphed by your earlier reactions to similarly genre-bending movies. Or maybe I just got lucky this time and will be dead wrong again next time. So as I really have nothing else to add here that hasn't already been said, let's sing a verse or five as Angie rolls her eyes at us.
"Take life one day at a time, that's what a wise man said to me..."
We'll be back next month with... something a little different.
at 9:51 PM