Did I just watch the most stereotypical cult classic of all time? It sounds weird to have that idea bouncing around your head. “The Last Dragon” is a fine movie, but I look back on it thinking more about just how straightforward it all seems, and how weird that feels for a movie that is supposed to defy cinematic norms by being utterly ridiculous. Allow me to elaborate, using a hastily composed list of “Cult Classic Requirements.”
1. You will be both impressed and awestruck at the stupidity of the concept.”
The movie starts with the Bruce Lee-inspired Leroy Green (Taimak) finishing his kung-fu training in a dojo located on the Manhattan side of the East River. He can only reach the final level by achieving the “glow,” literally meaning “the appearance of a sublime glow all over your body.” We thankfully get to see this in all it’s 80’s special-effects glory. Kung-fu has so completely taken over Leroy’s life that he is seen eating popcorn with chopsticks at a movie theatre.
Meanwhile, Laura Charles (Vanity) hosts an MTV-esque music video extravaganza, but runs into trouble thanks to Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney), who tries to kidnap Laura so she’ll play the music video of his Cyndi Lauper-wannabe girlfriend, Angela. Like every karate movie, Leroy steps in just in time to save her, only to disappear after she turns around, leading to contrived romantic tension.
The movie is tied together through Green’s only adversary, Sho’Nuff, the immaculately dressed Shogun of Harlem (Julius J. Carry III) who is by far the standout character of the movie. Eddie hires out the Shogun to find Laura, leading to an epic and climactic fight with Leroy that ends predictably. It’s a blaxploitation karate flick with evil white gangsters. So far, so good.
2. It will mix numerous amusing cultural milieu of a time period in a way no other movie possibly could.
To put it bluntly, the 80’s are a godsend to “The Last Dragon.” Musically, we get an over-the-top kung-fu montage in the opening credits made even better with synthesizers, a shameless ripoff of “You’re The Best” from “The Karate Kid,” and an actual decent song in “Rhythm of the Night.” Director Michael Schultz also benefits from early video game special effects, the entire Bruce Lee library, and countless terrible fashion decisions, all of which appeal to the part of me that really wants to live in the grunge of pre-yuppie New York.
3. I leave quoting a specific line that I will enjoy referencing for at least the next week.
“Am I the baddest mo-fo, low down around this town? Sho’Nuff!” The only thing more satisfying is learning that Samuel L. Jackson will play him in the upcoming remake. No, that’s not a misprint.
4. A few characters will bring down the movie, depriving it of anyone but a “cult” audience since it’s not really that spectacular.
In this case, white people ruin everything. Eddie’s subplot does nothing to interest viewers that have already been amused by exceptional fight scenes, the idea of a karate culture in Harlem, and the exploits of Leroy’s father running his pizza parlor.
It seems like the writers had to decide between plugging the inevitable gaping plot holes or another couple of scenes with the criminally underused Sho’Nuff, and honestly thought the former made for a better movie. You just have to shake your head and wonder what could have been.
5. On the whole, it will be so bad that it’s good.
I mean, come on, how can you keep yourself from laughing when Sho’Gun announces he will kill Leroy with the proclamation that he “will designate his ass for dismemberment?” Or when Leroy discusses sex as an art form?
The requisite stupid, yet inventive dialogue from an off-beat set of characters in a crazy setting is the cornerstone of any great cult-classic. But with the cult canon now bursting with equally ridiculous films, it’s a shame that “The Last Dragon” gets too sidetracked to distance itself from its counterparts and be anything less than straightforward.