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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