The Last Dragon is a sort of time capsule. It’s so era-specific with its plot elements–early music videos, a Soul Train analog, arcade culture, grindhouse cinemas, a song by DeBarge–that it couldn’t be anything but an 80s movie. Thirty years later, The Last Dragon has endured and might be considered timeless in its own way. (Fittingly, the film’s star, Taimak, looks well-preserved today at 50 years old.)
The Last Dragon comes up every now and then in pop culture, like Busta Rhyme’s 1997 video for “Dangerous” or an episode of The Venture Brothers in 2006; if you’re lucky, you may see a Sho’Nuff cosplayer at a comic convention. The film is era-specific but without feeling completely dated, which is hard to pull off. Part of it is the way the heroic journey merges three different kinds of narratives: the fairy tale, the coming-of-age story, and the kung fu movie.
While The Last Dragon isn’t an intellectual movie, it’s constantly aware of what it’s doing with genre tropes and how it’s subverting racial identity and cultural stereotypes, and so it lends itself to an intelligent read.
It’s also the meanest, prettiest, baddest mofo lowdown around this town.
[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]
The Last Dragon begins at the end of our hero Bruce Leroy’s (Taimak) primary martial arts training. His name’s really Leroy Green, but he’s such a Bruce Lee wannabe that people call him Bruce Leroy. His teacher sends him on a quest to find Master Sum Dum Goy in order to achieve the golden glow, a kind of spiritual martial arts perfection that allows a true master to generate light from his or her body (i.e., going Super Saiyan). During this quest, Bruce Leroy is challenged to a duel by the hulking Sho’Nuff (Julius J. Carry III) and winds up embroiled in a kidnapping/music video extortion scheme involving TV host Laura Charles (Vanity) and Napoleonic arcade tycoon Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney).
Though Bruce Leroy goes on his quest alone, there’s a Wizard of Oz vibe in his journey for Sum Dum Goy, making The Last Dragon the second NYC-based Wizard of Oz movie I can think of (the other is The Wiz). It makes the New York of the film a kind of fantasy setting, one that features roving gangs of costumed goons like Sho’Nuff and his posse (who wouldn’t be out of place in The Warriors), and jive-talking Chinese dudes at a fortune cookie factory who, like Bruce Leroy, simultaneously subvert ideas of black and Asian identity (more on that later).
The coming-of-age angle in The Last Dragon is equally fascinating. Despite his skill as a martial artist, Bruce Leroy is basically a socially inept nerd. He’s spent his life dedicated to a niche interest, so much that he doesn’t have an identity outside of Bruce Lee idolatry. You get the sense that he’s lived entirely in his own head with little social interaction outside of his family and the dojo. When he meets Laura Charles and begins to have feelings for her, delayed puberty hits him like a spinning back kick to the gonads. (This is what David Cronenberg described in his audio commentary for The Fly as “the sexual awakening of a nerd.”) Bruce Leroy’s younger brother, Richie (Leo O’Brien), is more than happy to oblige his older brother with some birds-and-bees talk, which is another one of the film’s switcheroos when it comes to character expectations and outward appearances.
The primary narrative scaffolding for The Last Dragon is the arc of classic kung fu movies. There are the outward nods, of course, like Bruce Leroy in a the yellow Game of Death tracksuit or Sho’Nuff’s red glowing hands a la King Boxer/Five Fingers of Death by director Chung Chang-Wha. (Both the Game of Death tracksuit and a sound cue from King Boxer/Five Fingers of Death would make appearances in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films.) But the structure of the kung fu movie is more important than the garnish. A lot of kung fu narratives, broadly, depict a hero on some kind of journey, a refusal or failure to meet a specific challenge, the escalating repercussions of this failure, a recognition of one’s own faults (sometimes in the face of imminent defeat), and an act of problem solving that leads to triumph.
The ultimate victory is the problem-solving moment, like when Jackie Chan gives up being macho and learns to love the feminine form of drunken boxing in the original Drunken Master, or when Bruce Lee metaphorically destroys his own ego in the hall of mirrors in Enter the Dragon, or when Gordon Liu creates a new weapon and wants to go beyond the 35th chamber in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Bruce Leroy’s problem-solving moment is also the culmination of the Wizard of Oz fairy tale and the coming-of-age story: Bruce Leroy’s got to grow up and be Leroy Green, his own man, forging his own identity unique from Bruce Lee, becoming his own master just like the heroes in kung fu films, and finally participating in the world outside.
Bruce Leroy’s journey is so internal, which makes Sho’Nuff the perfect villain for the film. Calling himself The Shogun of Harlem, Sho’Nuff is martial arts badassery externalized with no philosophical grounding. For Sho’Nuff, martial arts is a way to do things, but not a way of life that invites self-reflection or self-discovery. That tends to be a distinguishing characteristic of lots of martial arts villains, whether it’s a heavy played by Hwang Jang Lee or those goons from The Cobra Kai. They’re proficient in a fighting style, but limited by the idea of the style as an end in itself (i.e., “My tiger claw can beat your snake fist technique!” Nevermind that the hero has one-upped the baddie by combining snake style and crane style by the end).
The Bruce Leroy/Sho’Nuff difference is made all the more apparent in the casting. Taimak is a real martial artist, and according to Wikipedia has black belts in in Karate, Jeet Kune Do, Wing Chun, Hapkido, Jujutsu, and Tae Kwon Do. Carry, by contrast, had no martial arts background at all, but damn if he doesn’t look like a supreme bad ass. (Carry even looked awesome as Lord Bowler, a supporting character in the Bruce Campbell vehicle The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., which aired for a single 27-episode season on Fox in the early 90s.)
The most external part of Bruce Leroy’s character calls attention to racial stereotypes and cultural identity, which even today seems pretty novel. Here’s a young African-American man who lives in Harlem in the 80s, but he dresses like a coolie and speaks in a measured, contemplative, downright Buddhist tone; he even eats popcorn with chopsticks.
The jive-talking Chinese guys I mentioned earlier are essentially the guards of Master Sum Dum Goy’s fortune cookie factory. They make their first appearance in the film dancing in Chinatown with a massive boombox. The trio makes fun of Bruce Leroy’s outfit and demeanor before dismissing him. It’s a meeting of two different stereotypes that are upended, which calls into question, even in a small way, what it means to “act black” or “act Asian.” Bruce Leroy is “acting Asian” yet seeing “blackness” reflected back to him in the guise of three Chinese guys, who are probably experiencing a similar and inverted moment of reflection.
This cultural identity issue isn’t just in that first scene with the Chinese characters. Later in The Last Dragon, Bruce Leroy tries to change his voice and “act black” in order to disguise himself and infiltrate the fortune cookie factory. He does this by mimicking his younger brother Richie, repeating the lines “Hey, my man, what it look like?” in different ways, including a Michael Jackson falsetto. (Just think of the complicated racial/cultural implications there.) The characters at the fortune cookie factory don’t buy the act, but they think they can use Bruce Leroy’s blackness in order to learn how to play craps properly, as if all black people know how to shoot craps.
In another scene that comes earlier, one of the Bruce Leroy’s students, Johnny (Glen Eaton), wants to exploit his Asian-ness as a martial artist by essentially “acting more Asian.” Johnny claims he wants to take the art of fighting without fighting (another Bruce Lee nod) one step further.
“I mastered the art of fighting without knowing how to fight,” Johnny says. “You see, people are afraid of oriental dudes. Give them a little move, a little scream, and lots of attitude.”
Johnny makes like Bruce Lee with a stance and a scream, then he gets kicked in the head. Being a true martial artist takes work and isn’t just about what people see on the outside, and maybe the same can be said about becoming yourself completely, whoever you are.
These little moves and little gestures in The Last Dragon acknowledge that our cultural identity is far more fluid than fixed. Who we are isn’t necessarily predetermined by outward signifiers because there’s a certain ability to define oneself in a way that feels comfortable and also authentic. It’s about personal identity as the three-section staff, the 36th chamber, beating Mr. Han in the hall of mirrors.
Or, maybe thinking about it another way, it’s like Bruce Lee put it:
Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash.
Be water, my friend.
Alec Kubas-Meyer and I discuss Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).
Banned in several countries upon release, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo is one of the grandaddies of extreme cinema and consistently on lists of the most disturbing movies ever made. Salo is notorious for its graphic violence, sexual depravity, depictions of coprophagia (i.e., feces eating), and pervasive sadism.
But is it art?
PREVIOUSLY SHOWING ON THE CULT CLUB
Tromeo and Juliet (1996)
Samurai Cop (1989)
El Mariachi (1992)
Six-String Samurai (1998)
The Warriors (1979)