Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 24, 2023)
Via movies like Enter the Dragon and TV series like Kung Fu, martial arts enjoyed a mid-1970s period of mass popularity in the US. This faded over time, but a 1985 film called Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon attempted to revive the genre – albeit with a twist.
Set in New York City, Leroy Green (Taimak) reaches a point in his martial arts training where his master (Thomas Ikeda) feels he can’t teach him anything more. This sends Leroy on a mission to find “Master Sum Dum Goy”, supposedly the one person who can teach him “the Glow”, the final step in his evolution.
However, Leroy encounters a nasty rival in “Sho’Nuff” (Julius Carry), another martial artist who refers to himself as “The Shogun of Harlem”. While Leroy pursues his destiny and deals with the threat of Sho’Nuff, he also finds himself in a romance with Laura Charles (Vanity), a VJ/singer who encounters her own issues.
Although my intro might make it sound like Last Dragon existed in a US-produced martial arts vacuum, I obviously left out the theatrical elephant in the room: 1984’s The Karate Kid. That year’s fifth-biggest grossing flick in the States, the movie became a surprise hit.
Although Kid came with a lean toward martial arts areas, I view it more as a “coming of age” film. Daniel’s journey into karate acted as the conduit for his personal journey more than anything else, and it never resembled the genre efforts of the 1970s.
On the other hand, Dragon offers a much more conscious attempt to remind us of the era of Bruce Lee and his peers, right down to the Enter the Dragon-evoking title. Of course, the 1985 film comes with its own spin and brings a much more tongue in cheek entry.
Well, to a degree, as Last Dragon never seems particularly sure how seriously it wants us to take it, and the nature of its era doesn’t help. Even though I grew up in this period, I can find it tough to recall how much of the goofiness we see here was intentional and how much was just “the 80s”.
Thus we get a mix of scenes that clearly want to pursue laughs and others that provoke chuckles accidentally. While it becomes hard to tell which is which, I won’t call all of Dragon unintentionally comedic.
I will refer to Dragon as a mess, however. Whatever goals the filmmakers aspire to achieve, they fail.
Much of Dragon feels like promotional product, honestly. Note the presence of Motown founder Berry Gordy’s name in its prominent place.
Dragon didn’t become Gordy’s first foray into film production, as he also served as executive producer for a handful of 1970s flicks. However, it still feels weird that Gordy’s name got attached to this one’s title.
For all his fame in music circles, Gordy never got known as a movie producer. I have no real idea why this flick’s title used Gordy’s name so prominently – other than his ego, I guess.
Last Dragon does go heavy on music, probably in the hopes that it’d follow in the footsteps of big-selling soundtracks like those for 1983’s Flashdance and 1984’s Footloose.
This didn’t happen. Granted, the soundtrack did sport DeBarge’s hit “Rhythm of the Night”, but so did their own album released a little earlier, so I doubt the song helped boost sales of the movie’s record much.
Nonetheless, much of Dragon feels like an extended music video – sometimes literally. It uses Laura’s gig as a VJ as an excuse to run videos, and we see a huge chunk of the DeBarge clip, for example.
I’d claim these choices grind the movie to a halt, but Dragon never generates enough momentum for these clumsy promotional scenes to disrupt anything. Though it tells a pretty simple story at its heart, it mucks up matters badly.
Dragon really should offer a straightforward tale of Leroy’s journey. Instead, it messes up the works with superfluous subplots and extraneous characters.
None of this ever comes into real focus. The flick bops from one thread to another without logic and turns into a disjointed experience.
Taimak got his role due his handsome appearance and his martial arts skills, so Dragon offered his initial foray into acting. While he exhibits a certain naïve charm and he handles the physical demands well, his performance seems just as stiff and amateurish as one might anticipate.
Other cast members fare better, but not by much. We get a befuddling mix of acting styles that don’t mesh in the least, though I do like a quick glimpse of a relatively young William H. Macy in a tiny part.
Otherwise, I find nothing notable about this clumsy mix of comedy, action, romance and music. Amateurish and oddly dull, Dragon flops.