One of the great injustices of Hollywood is the fact that ‘Taimak’ is not a household name.
The Last Dragon, his cult classic star vehicle from 1985, is truly a one of a kind film. It is a story of an NYC kung ku master named Leroy and his endless quest to become the greatest. His journey leads him to cross paths with the sadistic martial artist Sho’nuff, the “Shogun of Harlem,” as well as a beautiful music video show TV host named Laura (played wonderfully by Vanity, rest her soul). Not much else needs to be said of the story except that you can expect some great comedy and that Taimak carries the film by portraying Leroy as one of cinema’s most guileless and respectable heroes.
As a black kid who grew up in the 80’s and loved kung fu, ninjas, and Asian culture generally, The Last Dragon felt like a movie made just for me. Rewatching it again recently, I see now that in truth it was made for all of us. The Last Dragon is not just a love letter to Bruce Lee. It is more than that. The Last Dragon in its way represents the promise of pluralistic urban society — a world where blacks, whites, and Asians all freely exchange and adopt one another’s cultures, mix elements in unique ways, and create amazing stories together.
Having lived in Asia for many years one thing that really stands out in the film is the way it mixes elements from both Chinese and Japanese cultures. Leroy goes from dressing like a ninja and throwing shuriken (Japanese) to wearing a tangzhuang jacket and doing kung fu (Chinese) in the span of a few minutes. Sho’nuff calls himself ‘shogun’ (Japanese) and wears a Japanese flag headband and karate gi, but also claims he does kung fu. There are myriad examples of this throughout the movie. This mixing of Japanese and Chinese cultures might actually be considered offensive to some as Japan and China have a long complex history together that was not always exactly harmonious.
However as I alluded to above I think this sort of ‘problematic’ lens is missing the point. The blending of cultures in the film comes not out of ignorance; it is deliberate and well-intentioned. It’s a creative way of making the themes more universal. Aside from some teasing from his younger brother who comes around by the movie’s end, Leroy is never criticized or seen as weird for being a black man who studies kung fu and eats with chopsticks. His main nemesis, Sho’nuff, is no different. We also see a number of Asian characters in the film dressing and speaking in an urban style common among inner city blacks. It didn’t occur to me to find this offensive as “cultural appropriation.” Rather it was just fascinating to see Leroy interact with them and see a black guy acting “Chinese” talk to some Chinese guys acting “black.”
There is room in other cultures for people to find a home and an opportunity for self-expression. This is a powerful and essential subtext to the film. It’s also extremely apt given that the film pays explicit homage to Bruce Lee even showing scenes from his films. Bruce Lee was himself controversial in his blending of cultures. He received criticism for teaching martial arts to non-Chinese and his fighting philosophy Jeet Kune Do is itself an eclectic mix of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and western fighting philosophies. This blending helped inspire modern mixed-martial arts, aka MMA, a fighting system greater than the sum of its parts and itself one of the best triumphs of diversity and cross-cultural exchange.
Philosophy aside, The Last Dragon is just a very lovable film. The music is really fun. The weird music video interludes actually work for me and add to the vibe. I love the comedy relief characters, particularly Leroy’s younger brother and Angela an aspiring singer. I appreciate that the main villain Sho’nuff is actually very honorable, refusing to take money to fight Leroy as his sole motivation is to prove he is the best fighter. I also loved how the romantic relationship developed between Leroy and Laura. It’s cute the way she gradually falls for him and tries to get into his world while Leroy is too much of a sperg to notice.
It’s a 10 out of 10 movie if rated purely on its soulfulness. Judged more critically with fresh adult eyes, the movie’s flaws are pretty obvious. The plot really is rather hokey and the fight scenes aren’t great with the exception of the ending showdown between Leroy and Sho’nuff. The film doesn’t hold up as well as you probably remember. Yet it remains a culturally fascinating and remarkable film easy to recommend to just about anyone.