Who’s the master? Sho’nuff!

We’re out of dragons again…

How to describe The Last Dragon (1985)? Imagine if Kung Fu Panda was a blaxploitation flick and that 40 per cent of it was a music video. Or if The Karate Kid had to defeat “The Shogun of Harlem” by turning into a glowing special effect. The Last Dragon is an absolutely ridiculous kung fu musical and it’s as fun and corny and dated as moonwalking.

The plot sounds like it’s making fun of the 1980s. An evil video arcade entrepreneur named Mr. Arkadian (Chris Murney) kidnaps a lovely MTV veejay named Laura (Vanity) because she refuses to play his mistress’ new music video. Seriously that’s the villain’s motivation. He never submits the video to the studio or tries a different TV show to launch his girlfriend’s career; he just goes straight to mafia-style intimidation and abduction of a television personality in front of witnesses. When he has trouble separating her from wandering kung fu do-gooders he hires a bunch of cartoonish thugs who all turn up with resumés so that they can explain why they should be hired into his army of sadistic bullies. This is fascinating because we usually never see the recruitment procedure for acquiring a gaggle of grunting troglodyte henchmen. Apparently there’s a rigorous screening process.

Of course the bad guy needs all of these goons in order to give the hero some people to beat up. The villain could just pull out a gun and point it at the hero like he does at the end of the film but that would shorten the running time considerably and we’ve got a lot of El DeBarge songs to get through before then.

The hero is a shy young martial arts expert who wears Chinese garb (including a ridiculous rice-paddy hat) and who speaks without using contractions (“I will not fight you”). He is Leroy Green (Taimak) known to his friends as “Bruce Leroy” because he’s a huge fan of Bruce Lee. In fact it’s at a 42nd Street screening of Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973) that Leroy first runs afoul of another ludicrous villain; “Sho’nuff; the Shogun of Harlem” played by the inimitable Julius Carry. Sho’nuff and his goons barge into the movie theatre resplendent in shoulder pads and frizzy hair and he starts bellowing challenges like he’s a professional wrestler ranting into a microphone. This guy doesn’t want to watch the movie; he just wants to yell at people until they either fight him or leave. Leroy leaves. You’d think that would be the end of their relationship but Sho’nuff hears a random kid talk about Leroy’s martial arts prowess and decides to be his nemesis.

Leroy’s fighting skill is remarkable enough and from the moment his kung fu instructor tells him about the “final level” of his training in which he can master “the glow” we just know that Leroy will eventually wind up in a climactic punch-out with Sho’nuff glowing like a plastic necklace at a rave. At this point his punches make video game-style streaks of light and spark explosions whenever they connect.

In 1985 it was possible to take The Last Dragon seriously; today it is not. The cast plays everything straight but the material is so rooted in its original time period that it’s a cornucopia of unintentional humour. If you lived through 1985 you’ll be having wild flashbacks while then-relevant stars (Vanity El DeBarge that little girl from The Cosby Show ) share scenes with supporting players who would actually go on to have decent film and television careers (Mike Starr Chazz Palminteri William H. Macy).

It’s easy to see why The Last Dragon has enjoyed cult movie status all these years. Lively nostalgic and utterly bonkers it’s a film that will boggle new viewers while giving old fans an embarrassed but heartfelt grin.