Movies with Isaiah: Journey to the '80s with 'The Last Dragon'


Today's review is going to take readers on a journey to the year 1985 pertaining to a cinematic gem from that period. Memories of watching this classic have me looking back on those years with fondness. I always had an admiration for the elements and sport of martial arts, especially when incorporated into film.

The late Bruce Lee and his son, Brandon, along with Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, have afforded me years upon years of childhood memories involving excitement, endless entertainment and fascination with the innovative techniques of the martial arts.

Berry Gordy and Motown Productions ventured into the cinematic industry in terms of establishing their own spin on known classics, one example being the underrated cult classic known as "The Wiz" starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell and Richard Pryor with its own unique take on the "Wizard of Oz." In 1985, one of my favorite films of all time was released, and it's titled "The Last Dragon." I didn't find myself watching the film on a regular basis until I was about 7 or 8 years old. From then on, I watched it every single day, quoting dialogue and becoming more obsessed with martial arts in general.

The film, starring Taimak, Vanity, Julius Carry and Christopher Murney, received mixed reception on release before transitioning into a cult classic. Its story centers on the development of martial artist Leroy Green, often being addressed as Bruce Leeroy, who aspires to achieve a mythical level of greatness similar to his idol Bruce Lee. He spends the majority of his time training, meditating and constantly searching for an individual known as The Master.

Not too far behind him is a villainous personality known as the Shogun of Harlem, going by the name of Sho'nuff, seeking to engage in combat with Leroy in his attempt to prove his worthiness of being addressed as The Master. Remember these types of films were a common occurrence in the '80s, presenting a story that was intentionally thin on plot, cheesy over-the-top acting and yet serious enough in the end, establishing them as a memorable cinematic experience.

I have detailed memories of my father often doing a perfect imitation of Sho'nuff's voice whenever we would watch the film and while playing hide and seek. I think it was because he had such massive appreciation for the performance of Julius Carry as the character. When I say my father could replicate the voice perfectly, it was a spot-on replication; he sounded exactly like him.

One or many ways to describe this film would be defining it as a combination of an innovative music video incorporating martial arts sequences, a true homage to the classic Kung-Fu exploitation films of the '70s, exhibiting the atmosphere, fashion and culture of the '80s and sprinkling an ironic sense of clever humor. I can honestly say it's hard to describe since it was truly ahead of its time.

No matter how many times I've watched this film, I fall in love with it more with each and every viewing. It maintains a true sense of charm that a lot of films these days are missing, and it retains its status as a cult classic 37 years after its initial release. Carry gives a masterclass performance as the villain Sho'nuff. Separating this character's motives from other villains is a concept I never thought of until reading a comment on YouTube.

Sho'nuff doesn't care about money, world domination or creating some dystopian future for himself and his followers. His goal is very similar to Leroy's with the exception that his approach is one of intentional menace, malice and brutality. All too often, especially in this era of modern cinema, villains have similar goals with their plans, and all too often you find yourself agreeing with them rather than holding contempt. Sho'nuff is a true villain without any redeeming qualities. He knows what he represents and embraces his ruthless, vicious and intimidating nature. He captures the very notion of wanting to see the antagonist receive his karma in some fashion.

From an acting perspective, it's about what you'd expect from an '80s martial arts film with the sole intent of providing sincere entertainment. I give Taimak full credit for managing to capture how one man would carry himself on a journey toward mystical peace and seek the status of The Master.

Looking back on the film now, I find it endearing and amusing how the character Leroy Green full-on dresses in attire that Bruce Lee wore in his features. Associated with the film is a memorable soundtrack from Motown's Production department that is very much inspired by the sounds and culture of the '80s. It fits in quite nicely with every scene, and even the ominous score during the initial final sequence manages to still implement fear into the viewer.

Along with the music, I can't praise the martial arts fight sequences enough. If this were remade into a modern form of cinema, viewers wouldn't be able to appreciate the fluid movements. Every single fight sequence has the camera perfectly pulled back, remaining in place and allowing the viewer to see the punches, kicks and weaponry usage. Even when showcasing classic Bruce Lee scenes, it still has this wonderful sense of appreciation of the cinematic art of what came before. Either way, this is one film that cannot and should not ever be remade under any circumstances. It's an absolute classic treasure from my childhood, and I recommend it completely. Rent or purchase it in order to fully embrace true '80s culture and authentic martial arts appreciation. "The Last Dragon" receives a 10/10 and two thumbs up.

Keep your eyes open for my review of the upcoming horror film "Barbarian."

Isaiah Ridley works at Beacon Cinemas in Sumter. To watch his movie reviews online, find him @Izzy's Cinematic Escape on YouTube.