Martial arts student Leroy Green (Taimak) is on a quest to obtain the elusive all-powerful force know as "The Glow." Along the way he must battle the evil, self-proclaimed Shogun of Harlem - a kung fu warrior also known as Sho-nuff (Julius J. Carry III) - and rescue a beautiful singer (Prince protege Vanity) from an obsessed record promoter.
Combining pulsating music, cutting edge dancing and the best in non-stop action, Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon is kickin' good fun featuring an amazing Motown soundtrack, including music by Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Vanity and Debarge performing their smash hit "Rhythm of the Night."
'Berry Gordon's The Last Dragon' is a silly, but good-natured satire of kung fu movies, wrapped up in a Motown-based soundtrack (hence, the reverential tribute to founder Berry Gordy within the movie's title) yearning for Top 40 acceptance, and aimed at general audiences with over-the-top villainy, broad comedic sequences and traditional superheroics. Despite some interesting ideas mixing up various genres, the movie ends up as less than the sum of its parts. As a martial arts blockbuster, the hand-to-hand combat is not particularly outstanding, and as a musical showcase, only a handful of tunes linger in the memory. Still, it's an inspired and lightweight piece of fluff which deserves to be on Blu-ray if only for nostalgia value.
Of course, music and movies have been part of the entertainment landscape even during the silent era (thanks to orchestral or organ accompaniments.) But in the 1980's, the popularity of MTV heralded a new sub-genre of cinema in the form of music videos. Suddenly, Top 40 artists became actors as well as performers in their own five-minute commercials. So If you were a fan of photogenic musicians like Prince or Madonna, it became a real treat to see your pop idols make their big screen appearances in movies like 'Purple Rain' or 'Desperately Seeking Susan' (although such enthusiasm would prove to be short-lived by the time 'Under The Cherry Moon' and "Shanghai Surprise' came out). I can sheepishly admit that as a follower of the Minneapolis Genius, I would look forward to any movie associated with his Royal Badness, no matter how tenuous or limited, such as Sheila E's appearance in forgettable fare like 'Krush Groove' and 'The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.'
So it should be of no surprise that Vanity's co-starring appearance in 'Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon' (hereafter simply referred to as 'The Last Dragon') piqued my interest during that hot, laid back summer of 1986. Alas, I never found the time nor wherewithal to purchase a ticket to this modestly received feature film, and it took a thirty year evolution in home video technology to revive my enthusiasm for a critical viewing.
Let me state that upfront that for Prince fans, Vanity alone is worth your time and trouble. Her performances and outfits are kept at a PG-level of carnal appeal, but she has an onscreen charisma which is obvious and long-lasting. In short, she looks fantastic and she carries her role pretty darn well. Sure, there are one or two line readings which raise an eye-brow or two, but her acting abilities are far superior to that of Appolonia Kotero's in 'Purple Rain." (Fun fact: Vanity was originally set to co-star in Prince's breakthrough movie before going off on her own career path.)
Then-newcomer Taimak stars as Leroy Green, a highly disciplined martial artist who adopts Chinese culture and philosophy and seeks greater knowledge somewhere in his home city of New York. He portrays the role stoically and with dignity, but also injects his own subtle humor without degrading the integrity of his character. If the movie were more successful, he surely would have been a bigger Hollywood star. Vanity (the singer formerly known as Denise Matthews, before Prince tried to re-christen her as "Vagina") plays the stunningly gorgeous Laura Charles, a video deejay who hosts a popular music video show called 7th Heaven. She is threatened by a sleazy businessman and video game operator known as Eddie Arkadian (get it?), played loudly and flamboyantly by Chris Murney, who is trying to pimp his girlfriend's questionable singing talents on Ms. Charles's show. Fortunately, our hero comes to her rescue whenever Laura's life is threatened. (None of this trouble would be necessary if YouTube were available back in the 1980's.)
In the meantime, Taimak is challenged by another martial artist known as Sho'nuff portrayed with villainous aplomb by Julius Carry. The Shogun of Harlem, as he is alternately called, insists on going mano-a-mano with the reluctant Taimak in order to determine who is the true master. Sho'nuff is eventually recruited by Arkadian to do away with Taimak and they all come together when Laura is kidnapped (which happens quite frequently, by the way). Along the way, we run into a bunch of rather colorful characters, including Sho'nuff's cheerleading entourage and Arkadian's bumbling crew, which includes his girl and bumbling henchman (strangely reminiscent of the interplay among Lex Luthor, Otis and Miss Teschmacher from 'Superman' or even Ross Webster, Lorelei Ambrosia and Vera Webster from 'Superman III'). The racially diverse cast, and their individual motivations make up a movie which goes by rather leisurely, especially between fight scenes. I don't know if today's audiences will have the patience to sit through extended scenes of lightweight comedy and heavy-handed satire in a movie primarily about a heroic good guy going after a powerful bad guy over a beautiful girl. And despite all the music by artists like Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, only a couple of tunes stand out as hit material (not surprisingly, DeBarge's "Rhythm of the Night" and Vanity's "7th Heaven"). Functionally, much of the soundtrack insists on literally spelling out all the themes and plot (titles like "Stand Your Ground" and "The Glow" should illustrate my point) instead of just being simple and catchy on their own.
Within all the plot contrivances and general predictability, 'The Last Dragon' makes various attempts at social subversion involving race and culture, and it all works well without being preachy. Leroy is often dressed in traditional Asian garb, including a rice farmer hat, and eating with chopsticks while speaking in tones more appropriate to a sensei than a young urban-based black male. The look is obviously based on a stereotype, yet the portrayal is sincere and consistent with the character. Similarly, a trio of Asian guys talk deliberately like urban-based black youths to comedic effect without being insensitive. If not for these offbeat characterizations and obvious attempts at satire, 'The Last Dragon' would end up as a doggedly predictable and boring film. Kudos to the screenwriter and director for adding a great deal of creativity to the formula.
Even if you don't get caught up with the story, or become tired of comedic moments which are pure camp, once can at least enjoy the movie for the various cast members who are more immediately recognizable today. These include William H. Macy ('Fargo') who has a few lines as a studio producer, Chazz Palminteri ('The Usual Suspects') as a limousine driver, Keisha Knight Pulliam ('The Cosby Show') as Leroy's baby sister, Ernie Reyes ('Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles') as one of Leroy's students and Michael Starr ('Dumb and Dumber') as one of the bad guys. Who knows? Maybe more marginal cast members will make their way to superstar celebrity status thirty years after their debut in a fun little flick called 'The Last Dragon.'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon' comes on a BD50 disc from Tristar Pictures/Sony. It is nicely packaged in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a slipcover which duplicates the cover packaging. Referred to as the "30th Anniversary Edition," the Blu-ray features new artwork illustrated to resemble old-fashioned one sheets. A single page insert contains the Digital HD with Ultraviolet download code, and the disc itself is stamped with a red dragon donning the same distinctive shades worn by the villain Sho'nuff and gold lettering for the title. There's no doubt that this Blu-ray was produced with a good deal of attention to detail.
Presented as an AVC-encoded 1080p high definition picture with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, 'The Last Dragon' looks great on Blu-ray, especially for a modestly budgeted motion picture from three decades ago. The outdoor shots of New York have a natural look which allows the picture to live and breathe the 1980s. Outfits made of red and gold maintain a strong color coordination, and the deliberately garish hues of 1980's music videos are reproduced strongly and faithfully. The "glow" emanating from Leroy as becomes his own master is a bright and vivid effect which works well in the movie, as are the rainbow of lights which accompany every other exchange of punches and kicks. The high definition picture reveals the effect's cheesiness in all its enjoyable glory.
Details aren't as razor sharp as seen in most digital productions, but what appears onscreen is clear, clean and especially eye-pleasing when the camera focuses lovingly on Vanity. While some crushing of blacks is occasionally evident in darker scenes (specifically, during the final fight in an abandoned warehouse), I was unable to detect any noticeable defects in the transfer. If all movies from the 1980's looked this good, there would be no need for 4k.
As if to compliment the excellent video quality, 'The Last Dragon' boasts a soundtrack which though dated in fidelity, sounds great in 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. The center channels has notable clarity when it comes to voices, and blends outstandingly with the front two channels when the soundtrack comes alive with music and sound effects. I really appreciated the forward mix of songs and dialogue, especially during the "live" performance by Vanity when she sings "Seventh Heaven."
The rear channels are more subtle, with limited directional activity, yet create enough ambience to satisfy fans of musicals. Low frequency effects can be heard during the fight scenes, but deep bass is less prominent, especially when compared to the gut-churning rumbling of today's cinematic blockbusters.
The commentary track is well-recorded and takes center stage during the director's discussion while the main soundtrack fades into the background appropriately. Surprisingly, captions are also provided for the commentary as well as the main feature, with occasional paraphrasing and a misspelling here and there.
'The Last Dragon' has limited bonus materials, but the overall quality should thrill fans of the movie.
Return of the Dragon (HD 24:08) - This newly produced documentary features interviews with lead actor Taimak, producer Berry Gordy, screenwriter Louis Venosta and director Michael Schultz as well as interviews with other co-starring actors. As expected, praises and compliments are abundant among the interviewees, but the nostaliga and general enthusiasm are too genuine to dismiss. There are some movies which are simply way underrated or overlooked, and 'The Last Dragon' Is one of them.
Notably missing in this retrospective is Vanity, who retired from show business in the mid-nineties, and actor Julius Carry who died in 2008. However, affectionate mention is made of both actors by the cast and crew.
Original Theatrical Trailer (HD 1:26) - Though not up to the standards of the main feature, this preview looks very well-preserved and cleaned up for Blu-ray.
There really isn't too much to say about a movie which tries to please audiences in the broadest way possible, but without resorting to cheap sensationalism or outlandish gore. Like 'Big Trouble in Little China' and other ambitious escapist films which tried to mix up various genres, 'The Last Dragon' is deserving of a cult status and preservation for future movie fans to enjoy...or at least, look upon curiously. Recommended.