Watching 1985’s The Last Dragon – or as it was titled in theaters Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon – feels like viewing an unearthed time capsule. There are few films that feel so 1980’s, from its influences (from Bruce Lee to Star Wars) to the film’s fashion sense. If you’re willing to soak that up, it makes for a pretty entertaining lark.
After completing his kung fu training, “Bruce” Leroy Jones (Taimak) opens his own dojo (though is still looking for a greater master to train under), but he is constantly challenged by shogun warrior Sho’nuff (Julius Carry) – even during a screening of Enter the Dragon – as Sho’nuff desperately wants to be Leroy’s nemesis. Through inexplicable coincidences, Leroy also becomes entangled with popular VJ Laura Charles (Vanity) after defending her from Eddie Arkadia’s goons (including Chazz Palminteri and Mike Starr). Arcadia (Chris Murney) wants his girlfriend’s video on Laura’s program, so when she hires Leroy to protect her (and the two become romantically linked), Arkadia then hires Sho’nuff to fight Leroy.
The Last Dragon starts well, with Sho’nuff stealing the show (Carry sinks his teeth into the part), but the rest of the cast is weak (Taimak is an especially awful actor), it sags in the middle, the kung fu is so-so, and – as should be expected from a film produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy – the plot stops dead at certain moments for Motown artists like ’80s phenoms Debarge and Rockwell to have their music played. That said, the movie is still fun to watch, as it has an endearing ineptness. Dragon came out in a weird, lean period for black cinema — by 1985 Blaxploitation had run its course and Spike Lee had yet to get theatrical distribution which makes it more playful than either era’s films. And, like a lot of low-budget ’80s movies, its sheer naiveté makes it oddly palatable. Director Michael Schultz (who made the wonderful Cooley High and the rap-sploitation classics Krush Groove and Disorderlies) keeps this a cartoonish affair.
For its thirtieth anniversary, Sony has put the film out on Blu-ray in an immaculate widescreen (1.78:1) presentation and in a new 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The film likely didn’t look that good in theaters, and though it was a medium budget film with lackluster cinematography, it does show off its New York locations well in this spiffed up release.
As for extras, the film recycles the DVD commentary track by director Michael Shultz for this release, and he loves the pictures, and speaks well of the challenges of making the film, shooting in New York, and losing 40 pages of the script they wrote. But the real gem here is the new 24 minute featurette “Return of the Dragon” which gets Berry Gordy, Taimak, Michael Schultz, screenwriter Louis Venosta and more to talk about the making of the film and its impact on pop culture, as the film does have a sizable fanbase. It’s a loving tribute to the movie and covers the challenges of the production, touches on the music, and highlights a number of the supporting players. Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer.