Motown’s attempt at maintaining relevancy in the mid 80's resulted in a Kung Fu musical aimed towards the Hip-Hop generation
Motown had been on a downward spiral since it lost most of their legendary original roster throughout the 70's and had failed to capitalize off of the Disco Era or consistently sign talent to would keep them on top of the music industry. With the exception of Rick James, Teena Marie (who would successfully sue the label in 1982 for her release), DeBarge (who emerged from former Motown act Switch), The Dazz Band and Lionel Richie, Motown had serious trouble putting out acts that music fans responded to and most young people saw the label as a veritable dinosaur.
The last profitable Motown film was 1975's “Mahogany” as they released two box office bombs in 1978, “Thank God It’s Friday” and “The Wiz”. Both films ended up becoming cult classics but were considered too campy and cheesy to be taken seriously. After seeing the fan response to “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” in Spring 1983 once it aired and the rise of Run DMC then Rap music and Hip-Hop culture go mainstream throughout 1984 it became clear to Berry Gordy how to have Motown reach younger audiences. Make a film incorporating everything they loved.
Young people loved Rap & Hip-Hop, music videos, Kung Fu films, video games and music. If they could find a way to incorporate all of those elements into a film they’d have a hit on their hands. Louis Venosta, a first time screenwriter and former dancer produced a script about a young Harlem Kung Fu expert which incorporated all of the necessary elements to appeal to young people in the 80's while at the same time harkening back to 70's Blaxploitation films. Berry Gordy brought on one of the most experienced Black directors of the era Michael Schultz (“Cooley High”, “Car Wash”, “Greased Lightning”, “Which Way Is Up?” & “Bustin’ Loose” ) to direct the project that would be called “The Last Dragon”.
Casting the leads was crucial so the film would be built around a 19 year old martial artist and one of the prized pupils of Ron “Black Dragon” Van Clief. Taimak Guarriello would be chosen to fill the role of “Bruce” Leroy Green. His love interest would be played by recent Motown signee and former frontwoman of Vanity 6, Denise “Vanity” Matthews in the role of music video show host Laura Charles. From there the rest of the cast would soon fall into place. The film was set to begin production/shooting in Spring 1984. Veteran music executive Suzanne De Passe was also very involved in many facets of the project.
One of the most crucial casting decisions made was the main villain. In the end Julius Carry was chosen to be Sho’Nuff, The Shogun Of Harlem. At the time, Julius’ most notable roles were in the 1979 Blaxploitation films “Disco Godfather” & “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” but he underwent martial arts training under Ron Van Clief in order to be believable in his role. Another key casting decision involved Leo O’Brien who filled the role of Richie Green, Leroy’s younger brother (he’d also appear as the younger brother in 1985's “Rappin”” opposite Mario Van Peebles). Veteran character actor Christopher Murney was brought in to fill the role of Eddie Arkadian, the video game king and secondary villain (who became the main villain towards the second half of the film).
The music in “The Last Dragon” was handled by the team of Suzanne Coston as music supervisor while legendary musicians Willie Hutch and Norman Whitfield handled the score. While this all seems great on paper to the producer Berry Gordy and the studio Tri-Star/Columbia Pictures seeing as so many people in place had proven track records, you had an out of touch executive (Gordy) making a film for young people in the mid 80's using people who specialized in making music and film with the sensibilities and aesthetic of the 70's. That would be even more evident once the film was finished.
The soundtrack of “The Last Dragon” was mediocre in retrospect, it was anchored by DeBarge’s Diane Warren penned hit “Rhythm Of The Night” (the video was given a prominent part in “The Last Dragon”) but aside from the overlooked gem “Upset Stomach” by Stevie Wonder this soundtrack was meh at best overall. Even Vanity’s “7th Heaven” was nothing more than a reworking of her 1984 minor hit “Pretty Mess” (both songs even had the same producer). The songs only become memorable within the context of the film and neither have aged well 30 years later.
Let’s talk about the film itself (which I loved as a kid although I thought it was corny as hell), “Bruce” Leroy Green is a martial artist who is told by his master after a day of training that there’s no more he can teach him. Leroy is devastated at the news so his master sends him on a quest to search for another master who holds the wisdom necessary for him to reach the Final Level where he can achieve The Glow. Leroy then sets off on his new quest.
Leroy Green dresses like Bruce Lee did in his films and speaks like a cross between a character from the TV show “Kung Fu” and a fortune cookie. He does weird shit like eat everything with chopsticks which angers his younger brother Richie to no end. He’s the son of Daddy Green, owner & proprietor of Daddy Green’s Pizza (“Just direct-a yo feets-a to Daddy Green’s Pizza”). His father refers to Leroy as “Junior” and while he is disappointed by how weird his son is he and his wife let it slide as long as he’s happy. Richie is not as forgiving, he considers his brother an embarrassment since he isn’t “down” or as “Black” as he should be. This is a running theme, hence his brother constantly referring to his brother as “Chopsticks”, calling him names that could offend Asians as well in addition to constantly making fun of Leroy for being a virgin.
Typically, the hero of the martial arts film isn’t a total cornball…unless we’re talking about Jackie Chan films. The thing is, Jackie Chan adopted this approach because Hong Kong film studios tried to make him the next Bruce Lee and he knew he couldn’t live up to that so took another approach. “Bruce” Leroy Green tries to emulate Bruce in every way possible except for the fact Bruce Lee was cool as fuck. In Harlem, Leroy’s main nemesis/detractor is Sho’ Nuff, The Shogun Of Harlem. He was the head of a gang who looked to fight Leroy so Sho’Nuff could finally be recognized as the better martial artist of the two. Let’s discuss the dialogue next…
I’m 70's baby and an 80's kid so I saw reruns on TV that spanned the mid to late 60's to the late 70's all throughout the 80's. Since we had mostly White writers working on Black TV shows that resulted in things like Willis Jackson still referring to women as “foxy mama” in 1985 on “Diff’rent Strokes”. In “The Last Dragon”, characters often sounded fresh out of a 70's Blaxploitation flick. The dialogue was throwback and derivative in many instances plus many of the scenarios presented in “The Last Dragon” were laughable looking back.
That being the case? The film was still enjoyable to audiences back in 1985. The music wasn’t bad enough to be a distraction and the dialogue was on par with most other cheesefests of the 80's. The main reason why “The Last Dragon” didn’t age well is because 1985 turned out to be a monumental year in terms of classic youth films.
In 1985 alone, teen film staples such as “The Breakfast Club”, “St. Elmo’s Fire”, “Better Off Dead”, “The Goonies”, “National Lampoon’s European Vacation”, “Real Genius”, “Weird Science”, “Just One Of The Guys” and “Krush Groove” were all released. Even by cheesy 80's movies standards most of these films still hold up fairly well and “The Last Dragon” definitely comes in last out of the ones previously listed. It’s still better than “Rappin’”. Then again, getting a prostate exam from Freddy Krueger is better than “Rappin’”…
Eddie Arkadian trying to get his girlfriend’s video played on Laura Charles’ Video Hot Picks show is analogous to how people lobby bloggers to post their shit today. An instance of corporate synergy/product placement I didn’t initially catch as a 9 year old was Laura Charles’ show was sponsored by Coca Cola. A Coke jingle plays during the scene where Arkadian and his girlfriend watch a commercial for it. At the time, Tri-Star/Columbia Pictures was a subsidiary of Coca Cola (in 1989 Coca Cola’s Tri-Star/Columbia holdings were purchased by Sony) and Laura Charles was being played by a Motown signee who’s video pick of the week was another Motown act, DeBarge. All of that corporate shit flew right over my head as a kid.
Another interesting footnote is William Macy played the role of J.J., the person who approached Laura about playing the video. The tastemakers of the Now Generation, the Cloud Crowd inside 7th Heaven represented the audience that eluded Motown in the mid 80's that they had no hold on. After Laura Charles is kidnapped by Eddie Arkadian she’s saved by Leroy in the first standout fight scene choreographed by Ron Van Clief. Incidentally, the very next scene following the thugs telling Eddie they got their asses whupped by Laura Charles’ protector(s) shows Leroy in his dojo with his students where he teaches Chinese Goju. The founder of Chinese Goju is none other than Grandmaster Ron Van Clief, Taimak’s sensei.
Only 30 minutes into the film, Sho’Nuff makes his second appearance sounding like he stepped right out of a comic book with his gang in tow. It’s here where he utters the classic line “Kiss my Converse” along with several negative (scattered) references to Asians. Even the guy playing an Asian refers to himself as “Oriental” as if to make matters even worse. After Sho’Nuff & crew bounce from the dojo since Leroy once again opted not to fight him the next scene shows his home life. What’s notable about this scene is Keshia Knight Pulliam playing the youngest Green sibling, Richie outlining everything wrong with Leroy to his parents and Leroy using “san” as an honorific suffix when addressing his family members. “San” is a Japanese honorific suffix and Leroy is very clearly studying Chinese Goju & Kung Fu which are both Chinese. Even as a 9 year old that confused me.
The following scene where Leroy & Richie open up the pizza shop after Leroy recognizes the woman he saved the night before on the television has another classic scene where Richie makes fun of his brother for being a cornball and a virgin who knows nothing about “the art of love making”. He says he has “no paint brush” and doesn’t “have any moves”. Fuck does Richie know about the subject? Richie agrees to bring Leroy with him to 7th Heaven to meet Laura Charles if he carries him on his back the entire way there while rapping. Since Leroy is a cornball he fails miserably at the attempt but he carries his brother on his back (who is carrying a boombox bigger than HIM on his shoulder) effortlessly. This leads to yet another fight scene after Leroy witnesses Laura Charles getting kidnapped by Eddie Arkadian’s thugs.
Yet another Ron Van Clief choreographed fight scene showcases Taimak’s considerable martial arts talents. Once he saves Laura Charles (again) she brings him back to her crib and pretty much comes onto him. Leroy, remembering what his brother said about him not being able to handle Laura Charles pretty much flees her apartment in fear due to his sexual inexperience. We go from this scene to one of the weirdest in the entire film, Leroy Green goes to the Sum Dum Goy fortune cookie factory searching for the wisdom of the master his sifu sent him to obtain.
Here we have a scene with Asian actors not only sounding like they all got A’s in the Black Acting School but they also deliver a gang of lines that are demeaning to their fellow Asians as well. Weirdest shit ever. We then get hit with a quick cut of Sho’Nuff and his gang at Daddy Green’s Pizza looking for Leroy. If you pay attention, you’ll notice a young Carl Anthony Payne II in the pizza shop (better known as Cockroach from “The Cosby Show” and Cole from “Martin”). Sho’Nuff and his crew wreck the pizza shop and throw Richie in the trash in hopes of forcing Leroy to fight him this time. Once Leroy shows up late, Richie chews him out for not using “that Kung Fu jive” and calls him a coward. “Jive”? Fuck year is this?
Laura Charles comes by the dojo and asks for Leroy to be her bodyguard. Still fuming from Richie calling him a coward for not fighting Sho’Nuff he turns her down. Meanwhile, Eddie Arkadian is assembling an army of hired goons to finally take down Leroy Green. Hell does he think he is, Cobra Commander? Once Eddie Arkadian’s girlfriend breaks up with him for being nuttier than an unwrapped Snicker bar dropped on the floor of a 70's porn theater he goes and recruits Sho’Nuff to take out Leroy. Once again, Sho’Nuff drops some lines that would make Dolemite proud. Leroy goes to apologize to Laura Charles for being a dick earlier and on the ride over to the studio he pretty much admits he likes her but he’s shy and has no clue what the hell to do. Laura brings him to the studio under the guise of “seeing a movie” with the intention of getting some ass but Leroy breaks out. Later on both Laura and Richie get kidnapped by Eddie Arkadian.
In yet another terrible scene involving the Sum Dum Goy guys, Leroy Green pretends to be “Black” to gain entrance since the Chinese cats seem to ape Blaxploitation films. This entire scene is extremely painful to watch and I tend to skip so I can get to Leroy’s sifu telling him that he had to look inside himself to reach the Final Level and achieve The Glow.
Meanwhile, Eddie Arkadian has turned 7th Heaven into the final level of a side scrolling beat ‘em up. Leroy goes to rescue his girl and his brother and is later aided by his students. Among them is young martial arts prodigy Ernie Reyes Jr. in his film debut. The scene where he beats the shit out of a gang of thugs then poplocks was choreographed by his father Ernie Reyes Sr. which incidentally is one of the thugs he beats up during the sequence. He’d go on to star in “Red Sonja” then the Disney TV movie “The Last Electric Knight” which resulted in the short-lived TV series “Sidekicks” (1986–87).
Richie pop locking his way out of his ropes was a big moment that sticks out in my head but I always wondered why he still had an afro in 1985? The final fight scenes pretty much overshadowed all the cheesy dialogue, casual anti-Asian racism, and campiness. Watching “Bruce” LeRoy finally fight Sho’Nuff who started out with The Glow until Leroy got his head dunked into a water bucket enough to realize HE was The Master was another big moment. The movie finishes strong with homeboy catching a fucking bullet with his teeth. Which begs the question… When did he do this shit before? He can catch bullets with his teeth but he’s completely clueless when it comes to sex? Priorities.
At the end of the film, Leroy shows up to 7th Heaven (and incidently all of Leroy’s students and Richie end up part of the Cloud Crowd) in all white and asks Laura Charles to “show me some moves”. Richie finally claims his brother and the happy ending is in effect. What’s crazy is Taimak was cast as the lead in Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait A While” video where he pressures her for sex off of her 1986 game changing LP “Control”. In 1989, he also played a sexual predator/rapist named Garth on “A Different World”. Talk about going against type. Taimak never had another leading role as an action hero/martial artist after “The Last Dragon”, either.
“The Last Dragon” had a $10 million dollar budget and brought in $33 million dollars in global box office receipts after an 80 day theatrical run. This was Motown’s first profitable film project in a full decade but they weren’t able to capitalize off it at all. “Krush Groove” (also directed by Michael Schultz) would drop in October 1985 further cementing the stranglehold Rap had on the younger generation. In 1986, a new strain of R&B emerged that would be referred to as New Jack Swing. Over the next 3–5 years, many once popular R&B singers and groups saw their popularity take a nosedive and their days of hitmaking came to an abrupt end due to the burgeoning Minneapolis Sound and New Jack Swing’s chart dominance. Motown was one of the labels hardest hit by this sea change in the modern Black music aesthetic.
As I look back on the legacy of “The Last Dragon”, I can’t deny that even with all of its faults it is without a doubt a classic film. I mean, if we consider “Krush Groove” a classic then “The Last Dragon” qualifies as well. Is “The Last Dragon” a GOOD film? I don’t own it on DVD and I’d need to do drugs stronger than Black women before I said it was. I feel the same way about both “Breakin’” movies and “Beat Street” just in case you think I’m just being extra hard on it. It still remains an entertaining film to watch even with all of the awkward moments most 80's movies have. I mean, every 80's movie can’t be “Three O’Clock High” or “The Lost Boys”.
Rest in peace to Julius J. Carry whose performance as Sho’Nuff helped to sell this film to audiences and ended up the role he was most noted for and Leo O’Brien who played Richie. The fact remains there are more than enough memorable performances, moments, iconic scenes and quotable lines in “The Last Dragon” for it to remain a beloved cult film and hood classic 30 years after it was initially shown in theaters. For that fact alone you jive coolies should bow down to The Master and kiss its Converse.