In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1995 and six from 1985. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Set aside craven calculations of nostalgia and name recognition, and consider that sometimes there are some reasonable criteria that make a remake acceptable. Can today’s technologies and tastes enhance the artistry and themes of a story? Does the modern-day ratings system’s permissiveness allow pushing the necessary boundaries to get it to a wider audience than it might have found initially? Could you immediately rattle off perfect contemporary casting for the film’s five biggest roles?
By those standards, a 21st-century reimagining of 1985’s The Last Dragon — a daffy hodgepodge of martial arts, musical and Blaxploitation — should have shown up by now. Kinetic film-fight choreography has only gotten more dizzyingly creative over the last 30 years, and The Last Dragon is a clear forefather to the no-big-deal urbanity that has made The Fast & the Furious a billion-dollar franchise; here, as in F&F, Chinese guys, black youth, Italians and other Europeans all grind it out in a commingled Chinatown-uptown neighborhood.
Then in its baby-step stumbles as a rating, the PG-13 slapped on the film felt perhaps too harsh. But the PG-13’s contemporary elasticity could give it a tougher touch it may need to transcend today. A Top 40-targeted soundtrack? Hand that off to your musical impresario of choice. And the casting? Easy. Michael B. Jordan as heroic martial-arts disciple Leroy, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as his musical lady-love Laura, Paul Giamatti as the villainous Arkadian and Jenny Slate as his dim-bulb, good-hearted moll, Angela. Ah, but what about the seemingly inimitable Sho’nuff, Shogun of Harlem and the meanest, prettiest, baddest mofo low down around this town? Could be the role of a lifetime for a bulked-up, bewigged Keegan-Michael Key.
A remake could bring more cohesion to a film with a genre identity crisis; it always feels a half step away from truly capitalizing on any of the three. But it also might not strike the funky, daffy sweet spot with which The Last Dragon takes an inner-city poke at the hero’s journey without ever taking the piss out of it — a surprisingly shrewd play that elevated a last gasp of Motown’s film shingle to cult status.
The silver screen seemed a natural expansion for Berry Gordy Jr.’s musical empire — one that came to define sounds, cities, people and generations and whose films came with prepackaged cross-promotional opportunities to sell more records.
Motown’s first film, 1972’s Billie Holliday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, gave the company a box-office hit, five Academy Award nominations and a No. 1 album of Diana Ross singing Holliday’s classics. Gordy himself directed 1975’s Mahogany, another Oscar-nominated, Ross-starring hit whose title theme (“Do You Know Where You’re Going To?”) became another Top-40 juggernaut.
But nobody paid attention to anything behind, or in front of, the curtain for 1978’s The Wiz, Motown’s adaptation of a Tony-winning R&B musical spin on The Wizard of Oz. Then the most expensive movie musical ever, The Wiz’s whiff crushed Ross’s acting career, lost today’s equivalent of $36 million for Universal and Motown, and sent Gordy’s film division off to lick its wounds. (A fine stage production in its own right, The Wiz will get its cultural reconsideration later this year when it becomes NBC’s next live-televised musical.)
Seven years later, little about the development of The Last Dragon would suggest Gordy and company thought they were going to rebound. Despite a career couched in acclaimed black-culture comedies like Cooley High and Car Wash, director Michael Schultz didn’t exactly excel the last time he made a quasi-musical: 1978’s other musical disaster, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pressured to cut $2 million from the budget, Schultz and screenwriter Louis Venosta constantly rewrote. The lead role went to Taimak, a 19-year-old black belt of African-American and Italian descent who was reportedly learning to act while on set, and its release date pitted it against franchise sequels to Porky’s and Friday the 13th.
Hardly the recipe for what, at $25 million, became Motown’s highest-grossing film ever. And even if you’ve forgotten The Last Dragon, or never knew it, you likely remember “Rhythm of the Night,” DeBarge’s exuberant, calypso-flavored ’80s pop anthem featured in it. There surely must have been a symbiotic relationship of success between song and screen, even if the number is a footnote in the film; its most prominent use finds Schultz seemingly training his camera on playback of a video made by someone else.
And at 108 minutes, The Last Dragon tests how long a film can reasonably exist when its primary plot points are fight, kiss and dance. Leroy (Taimak) is a young black man who has sheltered himself from the streets and dedicated his life to the martial art of Goju and achieving the Glow. It’s a physical manifestation of light that, in the right hands, represents beautiful Zen harmony and, in the wrong ones, is a havoc-wreaking weapon.
However, Leroy’s sensei (Thomas Ikeda) has taught him all he knows and still no Glow. Armed with a medallion that belonged to Bruce Lee and pointed toward a new master in Harlem, Leroy sets out to become “the last dragon” and get his Glow on. It’s not long before he’s sidetracked by the confusion, vengeance, fear and love his sensei predicts.
Leroy goes head over heels for the lovely Laura (singer-actress-Prince protégé Vanity), taste-making celebrity host of a popular music-video show. And he winds up protecting her from Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney), an impish, megalomaniacal video-arcade magnate who feels like a Dick Tracy henchman that’s been given pro tempore power and doesn’t really know how to wield it.
Arkadian wants Laura to showcase the nigh-unlistenable Cyndi Lauper knockoffs sung by his dame Angela (Faith Prince, later a Tony-winning Broadway star). If Laura endorses them, Arkadian reasons, they both get famous. Murney, who became the commercial voice of Chester Cheetah, brings a welcome, teeth-gnashing Edward G. Robinson abrasiveness to the film, and scaling his Bond villain lair down to sitcom soundstage size is both a visible budget shortfall and one of the movie’s best jokes. When Laura rightly rejects Arkadian’s offer and he sends his thugs (including a blink-and-miss-him Chazz Palminteri) after her, Leroy fends them off.
Taimak is Michael Jackson had the singer bulked up and decided to grab throats with ferocity instead of his own crotch. The actor’s earnest, eager, voice-breaking tenor is exactly the same … and so is his “woo!”-ing, bouncing confidence when in his martial arts element. It’s the gangly, nerdy Peter Parker-esque performance it needs to be. Leroy has been taught to use his head before he fights, and you believe his anxiety over losing his discipline in destruction. And whether the timing of Leroy’s contraction-free declarative speech patterns is skill or accident is anyone’s guess. (“They did not harm me,” he deadpans when asked if he’s OK after a battle.)
The Last Dragon ultimately hinges on Leroy’s believability as a martial artist, which Taimak makes an unequivocal success. That arrow he karate chops in midair at the start is a no-tricks stunt, and he brings a dancer’s grace to the astute, if disappointingly sparse, martial arts choreography from Ron Van Clief, Ernie Reyes Sr. and Torrance Mathis; prior to the third act, there’s a disappointingly small amount of fight sequences. (And if you recognize the Reyes name from somewhere, The Last Dragon is the out-of-nowhere debut of his son, Ernie Jr. Before he starred in Surf Ninjas or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ernie Jr. memorably helped Taimak tear up some hapless lackeys as a pint-sized whirligig of whoop-ass.)
Plus, Taimak unleashes convincingly brawny, street-brawl haymakers in his climactic knuckle-buster with Sho’nuff, the self-styled Shogun of Harlem and Arkadian’s chief head-knocker. It’s not an overstatement to say that few pop-culture villains of the 1980s approximate the awesomeness of Sho’nuff as embodied by the late, great Julius J. Carry III. See, even the actor’s real name is badass! Like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, Carry towers over this movie (and Taimak by a head-and-a-half) despite being in it for maybe 10 minutes.
Sho’nuff feels like a guy who rented the neighborhood’s only copy of The Road Warrior never to return it, squirreling it away as a study guide and copying its villains for their apocalyptic, hand-hewn style and snarling, sinister intent. (Again, a low budget works in the movie’s favor, as Sho’nuff’s “armor” is clearly some sort of football padding.) His bloodlust, however, is unrestrained. With the large, looming presence of a Terracotta Warrior, Sho’nuff trashes Leroy’s parents’ pizza place, tosses around Leroy’s younger brother, Richie, barks that Leroy is a “limp wimp” and vows to make him “kiss the Converse” when someone intimates that he might actually be stronger. Sho’nuff is as eminently quotable as he is frighteningly overpowering, and worst of all, he seems to have the Glow that has evaded Leroy.
While Carry gloriously revels in a Vincent Price-like villainy, Sho’nuff’s wanton destruction reveals a surprising sociological nuance to The Last Dragon. Cartoonish as he is, Sho’nuff is the personification of unchecked urban blight. His is a relentless violence Leroy strives to avoid, but must begrudgingly come to understand — not only to triumph over him in a fight, but to discover the Glow. See, Leroy can possess all the dojo discipline he wants, but it’s not until he stands up for the safety of the streets he grew up on (and, through martial arts, sought to flee) that he truly lights up. Leroy’s embrace of cultural connection and identity? That’s the Glow, and that’s why it fizzles and fades on Sho’nuff just when he needs it most.
For a movie that seems content to be colorful and congenial, this may seem an unexpectedly thoughtful reconciliation of the ethnic mishmash at the movie’s core. But in retrospect, you realize it’s been strolling in that direction all along — the ethnic inversion of the trash-talking guys who hang out on the corner, Leroy’s dad not giving a damn about being a black man selling pizza, the sharp-zing revelation of the “wisdom” behind the mythical Sum Dum Goy.
While a remake of The Last Dragon may shine a brighter light on such things, there’s something to be said for the original’s appealing aesthetics of the medium-wattage illumination from within.