The Final Level

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There’s some kind of consensus going around that producer Berry Gordy’s 1985 Motown martial arts vehicle The Last Dragon is a movie that’s only possibly enjoyable in an ironic sense. Its status as a cult classic is uncontested, yet it maintains a low critical score on Rotten Tomatoes at 44% (audience score is significantly higher at 86%) and is considered by critics as respected as Leonard Maltin as “strictly kid-stuff”.

And I’m just here to say that’s straight up fucking bullshit.

There are to be fair more than a few flaws and faults of The Last Dragon as a motion picture, but I think it’s massively outweighed by just how much entertainment value it has overall and the different ways it functions as such – as cheesy martial arts inspirational movie, as relentless and genuine 80s time capsule (especially pre-Giuliani New York City), as African-American representation. And it doesn’t function as those things individually in a perfect way, but altogether it’s a singular object of grin-forcing fun.

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And it gets that way because Gordy and director Michael Schultz approached the film’s production and style no differently than that of a music video. Apparently they did not wanting a single frame to be empty of something to show off and resulting in a film always energized with lights and motion, arguably at the cost of consistent narrative or thematic depth but that’s not rare in 1980s cinema to begin with and it don’t bother me none. The very beginning of the film is shot like an Olympic commercial, focusing on the shape and power of young martial artist Taimak. It’s all slow-motion backlit swift and controlled karate moves, the kind you want to linger on when you intend for the subject to be a remembered star — punctuated by Taimak’s real-life chopping of an arrow in mid-flight. An action force to be reckoned with is introduced to us and then we see how he is housed in the body of the boyish naive Leroy Green under the guidance of a master (Thomas Ikeda) who insists that Leroy is finally ready to move on beyond his training in achievement of the Final Level, at which point Leroy will receive The Glow. That last part is kind of hard to parse out to be honest, but it seems to be an achievement akin to Super Saiyan status.

In any case, he sends Leroy on his way to explore the concrete jungle of New York City in which they reside on his own and the first thing the now lost Leroy decides to do is his favorite pastime of catching Bruce Lee movies at the local 42nd street theater. Which is one of the ways The Last Dragon incorporates reflexivity unknowingly, the way that Leroy looks up to Lee and watches the O’Hara fight in Enter the Dragon with rapt attention and wonder at Lee’s abilities without the slightest distraction from the characteristically New York-ian raucous crowd surrounding him – it’s the most effective way to tell us how much the character wants to be Lee in a film where we hear him referred to directly as “Bruce Leroy” and respected because of his adherence to the discipline of the martial arts, enough to operate his own dojo in Harlem. That The Last Dragon also has some Orientalist bent in the third act including twists that are extremely ungenerous and feel mean-spirited, given how much that culture inspires and animates its very hero. Not to mention, it’s always a kindred joy to have a movie hero that loves movies just as passionately as the viewer.

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There’s another sort of style that animates the film and that’s simply the music. Almost given as much screentime as Leroy’s Chinese inspirations is the apparent MTV-esque video music show 7th Heaven hosted by gorgeous VJ Laura Charles (Vanity) and Gordy and Schultz use that as the perfect opportunity to shove in a few music videos from the Motown label including Debarge’s “Rhythm of the Night”, which is the biggest nostalgia kick for me. 7th Heaven as a set alone is glimmering and flashy and shiny in such a loud 80s nightclub type of way, filled with dizzying mirrors sets and lasers, that it feels just at home for the impromptu pop setpieces that Vanity performs as an interlude to all the combat. And of course that’s to say nothing of the hilarious “Dirty Books”, a deliberately awful attempt at the vapidest New Wave knock-off you could find, performed by the lovable Faith Prince and with a gaudy bedroom set and even gaudier costumes for Prince to wear, basically literal trash attempting very transparently to pass off as fashion but completely betraying that it’s a traffic sign sewn over her butt and hazard lights over her breasts.

Between all of this, it’s no surprise that Def Jam Recordings later recruited Schultz for their own classic Hip Hop Artists musical vehicle Krush Groove (released later in the same year). Schultz also happened to direct Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is the closest predecessor in his career to a movie this music-based and so I’m mortified by the possibility that that atrocity could have inspired Gordy to hire Schultz for this movie but hey… we got The Last Dragon out of it and hot damn does it pay off in extravagance, musical number-wise and action setpiece-wise (I’m not really surprising when I say the Glow does make an appearance and it’s literally exactly what it sounds like and it is chintzy and awesome to see in action).

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“Dirty Books” is more or less the element that ignites the closest thing The Last Dragon could call a plot as Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney), the gangster girlfriend to Prince’s character Angela, attempts continuously to blackmail and threaten Laura into playing the video on 7th Heaven only to be thwarted again and again by Leroy’s happening at the right place at the right time (and each time Laura’s infatuation with him grows to the anxiety of the clearly inexperienced Leroy). Eventually, it gets to a point where Arkadian decides to escalate his battle with Leroy to using the big gun and… well, by that point, we’ve already met the big gun but I held off until the very end to give one of my favorite characters of all time a proper introduction.

Arkadian, despite being more rooted in the plot, is not the main antagonist. No, our main antagonist is introduced in that same 42nd street theater we see Leroy watch Enter the Dragon in and immediately starts ripping the scenery apart with his angry jaws. He’s loud and bombastic, maintaining a tall stance and a twisted snarl on his face that telegraphs how clearly antagonistic the character is without making him any less fun to watch. He spits an exhaustive amount of quotable lines like “Kiss my converse!” and “You just get that sucker to the designated place at the designated time, and I will gladly designate his ass for dismemberment!” with dedicated oversold menace barely hiding how much joy he gets quipping like that. And every moment he’s on-screen is a highlight of The Last Dragon. For all it banks on personalities – especially given how easily Vanity plays celebrity seductress in a surprisingly clean way, I think she kind of needs more credit for that performance – the late, great Julius Carry gifts us with a personality that adopts the aggressive belligerence of 80s New York City to the unapologetic hamminess of movie villany from his wild hair to his loose black-and-red (the colors of EVIL!) gi. If there’s any one reason you need to watch The Last Dragon right this second (and there are many), it is this character.

Is he the meanest? Is he the prettiest? Is he the baddest mofo low down around this town? Well who is he? Who is he? He can’t hear you…

SHO’NUFF.

The Shogun of Harlem.

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FLASHBACK: “CHEDDAR!!! AWOOOO, CHEDDAR WHIZZIT!!! – The Smell of Cinema Cheese”

Does anybody remember the films that were really stupid looking, had a really stupid feel, really sucked badly…

 

 

 

… and yet we can’t help but really want to watch them?
They usually more or less have a cult status despite their quality.

Army of Darkness
Re-Animator
Plan 9 from Outer Space
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Big Trouble in Little China
Manos: The Hands of Fate

There is just so much more I can name, but it would take a lifetime, because the perception of how much melodrama, how much ‘cheese’ is in a motion picture can really range over just about every damn movie. So, where does that come from, the feeling that makes you and your friends together go ‘Damn, that film was cheesy as cheddar’? What compels you to just go back to said movie, beyond entertainment value? – because you can find entertainment in anything if you push yourself enough. Where does a community of film goers with such a reception come to a point where they can give a certain film that stamp of universal approval?
That point where a picture that would’ve been predicted as forgettable in the days to come becomes a revered cult classic?

Get dat cheese, son!!!!

I had been discussing this with a friend when he was giving Any Which Way but Loose a hearty bashing. He notes that the movie’s cheese is what makes it sink as a quality picture, while movies like the twenty-million Roger Corman Syfy television films and the Ed Wood pictures or The Room and such that get that ‘it’s so bad, it’s funny’ reaction from the audience.
Already we have one possibility for the following that pictures like these get. Nobody will claim they’re good movies above the age of 12. They go back to them because they need something to laugh at. They need something familiar, they cannot take seriously at times when they would want to be just comforted by whatever’s happening outside the celluloid world by an absolutely facetious piece of motion picture defecation.

If I do say so myself, I thought that last line was pretty eloquent. I might just stop cursing out movies, cause fuck it, man.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand, we then see pieces of cheese everywhere in a way, like I mentioned before. Said friend insisted that he perceived John Carpenter’s Halloween as cheese, like any slasher film could reasonably be perceived as, with their formulaic, exploitative and certainly over exaggerated presentation, despite Halloween being one of the more original pieces of this genre and the movie that started such a trend that would quickly be regarded as shlock. He himself cited particularly the usage of the serial killer’s viewpoint the straw that breaks the cheese camel’s back.

WARNING: Clip features female frontal nudity.

But if that’s the case, would one easily perceive Spielberg’s horror/adventure classic Jaws as cheesy for the same usage of murderer’s point of view, when it was so highly regarded at the time, the essential piece to the chilling effect of those frightening and sensational scenes? Is Jaws‘ largest advantage also it’s subtle disadvantage? Could Jaws as a picture be put in the same realm as the Halloween knock-offs as shlock, as cheese?
The answer is yes again, if only solely from perception. What may have worked for one audience, may just make another audiences eyes roll, the percentages and statistics on what makes how many people tick does not entirely matter in the end.

But then those still are regarded as anomalies if not a unanimous reception. There has to be an exact science to this, an exact factor that allows certain pictures to be certified cult classics, to be completely easily esteemed. And the cheese does not only affect the cult films.

Anybody can find melodrama or cheese in modern films like Star WarsCarriePhantom of the ParadiseThe Untouchables, the Indiana Jones series, Jurassic ParkBlade RunnerSuper 8Sin CityHot Fuzz, Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, any Tarantino, Raimi, Hitchcock or Coen Brothers flick, the French New Wave, even and especially the legendary David Lynch TV series Twin Peaks – alongside much of his work like Blue VelvetThe Elephant Man or Mulholland Dr.

And the reason is that those melodramatic factors, those elements that impose upon you to recognize and feel nostalgia or humor from the presentation, those are put in deliberately. Some in homage, some in parody, some because the movie wants to appeal to children (‘course sometimes a great big mess-up… I’m talkin’ to you, Jar-Jar Binks!), some to jolt you, to shock – whatever intention the creator feels makes the melodrama necessary to be turned up to 10, it’s there and it’s done on purpose.
The fact that the element is deliberate and controlled in these works suggest that something has to be tapped in emotion of performance and script that elicits these demonstrations of over exaggeration. And the challenge is especially in keeping these movies tasteful.

So where is it? Why do these movies have a popular reception beyond a cult following…
Well, my friend insisted that one element is the production value of these movies, but even then movies put their all into production value, so that’s a variable that can go both ways, it simply cannot be a constant until the final product is made. Look at Apocalypse Now and again Jaws, these films were just going with the flow for the most part, plagued with production issues, and came out as very well-received classics of motion picture auteurship.
It means they can never receive that cheap feel of Corman or Russ Meyer, who made due with what they had, who legitimately and frequently did their best to make their films presentable by working their best with the limited means they had…

‘As a producer, I’m probably a little stronger than most, since I was a director originally.‘ -Roger Corman

The Spielbergs and Coppolas and De Palmas of our times cannot reach that feel because they have too much money, too much pride. They can’t make a movie bad on purpose, lest it get really bad…
Corman doesn’t even do it on purpose, nor Russ Meyer. They work with what little they’re given and they build something out of it. Roger Corman and Russ Meyer are, for better or worse, among the ultimate independent filmmakers

So, what is it indeed that gives the status of cheesy? I, myself, in my extremely limited yet modestly expanding knowledge of cinema and humble opinion, think part of the effect of cult and melodrama and cheese, comes from the test of time and how it treats a motion picture.

Let’s take thought to that for a moment. The true legacy of a film cannot be determined immediately after a release. We have no idea how The Dark Knight will be perceived 30 years from 2008 yet, we have to wait until we’re steadily approaching that date. Because, despite the reception of a movie at the time of its release, the legacy of a picture can be affected by the next audience to come around, by the youth and how they are affected by the content on the screen.
Halloween‘s legacy is easily tarnished by copy cat slasher films like Friday the 13th and Prom Night and all; not only that, but the re-hashing and remakes of these films by Rob Zombie (albeit earnestly and well-intentioned in some cases) and Michael Bay and Platinum Dunes.
The same can be said for Forbidden Planet which loses its originality and power as each Flash Gordon and Star Trek gets more and more into the light.
It’s like how people perceive the original version of The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ as inferior to Van Halen’s cover these days… ugh, people…

It also is probably one of the factors in Sam Raimi’s newfound reception after a rebooting of Spider-Man, but I’ll get into that in a later article, because I have A LOT to say about that matter. (EDIT: I never wrote that article… but you can expect it now that the memory has returned on this new WordPress page)

I’d shown the film Re-Animator to a group of friends one night and they seemed largely disinterested in it, despite its camp, making me feel sad that nobody shared my feelings of excitement and glee towards the overcamping of a work by one of my favorite authors, H.P. Lovecraft and Jeffrey Combs’ reservedly manic performance as Herbert West, a performance that deserves to be as legendary as Bruce Campbell’s Ash from the Evil Dead trilogy.
Of course, their attention was particularly anchored once a certain kidnapping took place (I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it – I want you people to watch and be repulsed, because that’s the effect Stuart Gordon was going for – it is extremely distasteful).
At the same time, one of those friends, Dreylon (of the second Django article – jokingly to be referred to as ‘Dreylon Unchained’) had to see the initial episodes of Twin Peaks for a college assignment and regarded the reactions of Laura Palmer’s murder as hokey and reacted with ‘Do I really have to watch this?’

Anyway, this does not affect movies that are perceived undeniable classics… We can’t publicly call out Star Wars or Jaws or The Maltese Falcon or Metropolis or The Matrix as 100% Grade-A movie cheese despite their hokeyness, both due to and in spite of how much they took and how much is owed to them – the way they have reached that classic status. Despite their extreme and obvious camp, The Bride of FrankensteinA Nightmare on Elm Street and Carrie are forgiven – even though they influenced all these easily obnoxious horror tropes and stereotypes, they get away with it…

And another thing, I’ve never seen a movie with an initially positive reception ever go entirely downhill in audience appreciation. It’s always the other way around a movie has to be outright hated for the most part and then others later on see it for what it’s worth… it happened to Fight Club, it happened to Blade Runner, it’s currently happening for Heaven’s Gate and so many of Buster Keaton or Orson Welles’ works and so on and so on…
Course there is that area of films that get a cult following without a raise in their IMDb rating – people who fuel the following that The Room or Battlefield Earth or Manos: The Hands of Fate or Plan 9 orReefer Madness or Boxcar Bertha have will never admit to those movies being good, they know better… they just like watching them.
No, it takes just a small group of people to give a film a legacy…

I’ll kill somebody if that happens for The Master of Disguise.

Don’t laugh at me, you bald fuck! You killed Garth’s career!!!
The friend I was discussing this subject with responded with this, a statement that concisely sums up a history that would’ve probably taken forever for me to type so thanks, Erik Yabor…
 I think the test of time has been kind to ’50s film noir, Spaghetti Westerns, late ’60s/early ’70s Charlton Heston science fiction films (because apes on horses are awesome), ’50s Westerns and kung fu films even though they’re all filled with cheese because there was at least one visionary who made a few brilliant films in those genres to make them respectable. Conversely, history has not had as kind an opinion on blaxploitation films (unless you’re Tarantino), slasher films and ’80s action films because even the best films of those genres could not reach far beyond their intended audiences. I had a very low opinion of super hero films of the past decade in general (even though there were a few good ones) until The Dark Knight came out. I have a similarly low opinion of torture porn films of the past decade, which generally appear to be on a decline and I probably always will because I never saw a single one that I didn’t outright despise. 
 
Indeed.
However, the very last thing to state is that these genres, these cult films, these cheesy aspects, by the end of the day, something still compels us to see these films again and again and then there’s really something that impacts us in these films to feel the emotions we feel like new, whether laughing at how bad the movie is or legitimately being scared or amused or excited… We can’t blame it on solely the tropes, because we could easily instead select any similar production with those same tropes, instead of returning wholeheartily to a favorite…
‘This is the third time I saw that decapitation! Every fucking time!’
In any case handled improperly, it could be unappealing, but even Tommy Wiseau or Ed Wood have a way of making cinema appealing in some form, despite the obvious bad quality of their work… It’s why they get their following…It really is something that relies on the director’s touch of the film. The way he, as the author of the film, assaults us with images and sound that actually would make these feelings of melodrama and hoke seem fresh and new, even when we can call them out as absolutely unrealistic. It has a signature from the director, a uniqueness even in its unoriginality, even in its extremely similarity, the sameness of the slasher or the beach party or the zombie or the found footage movie.
You have to give these guys credit for that. I hate Zack Snyder with a passion, but I’m assuming there’s something in he’s doing to the audience that gets them craving more, short of lacing every film reel to be projected with cocaine…
The cult filmmakers have the same way to go about it…
A director needs to know what he’s doing. When a filmmaker takes pride in his craft, sometimes people will see the same thing that director sees in his work. And then that work is remembered. And then that work is appreciated. And that work becomes a classic. Cult or otherwise…
Wanna check out some cult movies? We (Erik and I, since this article is based on our conversation and I incorporate points he’s made, I’d like to give him credit for inspiring this article) like to recommend the works of these directors…
  • John Carpenter
  • Sam Raimi
  • Roger Corman
  • Brian De Palma
  • Stuart Gordon
  • George Romero
  • Ed Wood
  • David Lynch
  • Russ Meyer
…. By the way, if you hate one of the films… it means Erik suggested it. Fuck you, Erik.
You guys can trust me…