The Way of the Wise: The Journey of Purpose in THE LAST DRAGON
Fans dressed as Johnny Yu, Sho'nuff and Bruce Leroy pose with Taimak on Sunday, Nov. 12 at the Richardson Drafthouse after a screening of The Last Dragon.
“A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.” –Lee, Enter the Dragon (1973)
“Sometimes it is hard to live the way of the wise.” –Leroy Green, The Last Dragon (1985)
Bruce Lee’s final film, 1973’s Enter the Dragon, is a case study in dying to one’s self. Although Lee reaffirmed himself as martial arts icon long before Enter the Dragon, it is within the nearly two-hour runtime that we witness peak Lee, a man who was destined to do much more with his life before his tragic death in the same year of the film’s release. Looking back on the film forty-four years later, Enter the Dragon is not only Lee’s most appealing Kung-Fu classic, but also a retrospective on the man himself. Lee glows with an aura of his own self-empowerment in each shot. To us he has achieved legendary status and to us he is his own master.
Leaving such a huge cultural footprint in the wake of Lee’s death, pop culture attempted to recreate the original. Television shows such as David Carradine’s Kung Fu lasted into the mid-seventies. Carl Douglas’ kitschy tune “Kung Fu Fighting” topped the charts in 1974. Many attempts were made to recapture and capitalize on the Western’s new obsession with the martial arts of the Orient. But all of these simulacra were just copies of what could never be done again.
That is, until Motown founder Berry Gordy, who signed artists such as the Jackson Five and Stevie Wonder, decided to put his name on a Kung-Fu movie that would marry two of Gordy’s greatest inspirations: his love for Kung-Fu and music. Thus, 1985’s The Last Dragon came into being, paying direct homage to what Bruce Lee stood for.
Far from the originality of Lee’s original oeuvre, The Last Dragon is a film that blends genres as some scenes play out just like an ‘80s MTV music video. Where Lee is often cast as a selfless individual, The Last Dragon centers on a young martial arts student who is completely unsure of his self-worth. The Last Dragon stars Taimak, who plays Leroy Green, a Harlem man who must search for someone called The Master in order to finish his martial arts training and finally receive the “glow.”
It’s no wonder everyone still loves The Last Dragon. Going down in history as a cult favorite rather than an award-winning darling (although Debarge’s “Rhythm of the Night” was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1986 for Best Original Song), The Last Dragon is still a crowd pleaser. Even the comedy podcast “How Did This Get Made?” recently recorded an episode with guest star comedian Hannibal Burress, where each of the cohosts Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael gushed over how wonderfully over the top this motion picture is, even though HDTGM is known for picking out terrible movies. There will never be another film like The Last Dragon. Even today, it still hits the audience just right, as witnessed on Sunday when I attended a showing of the film at the Richardson Drafthouse. I watched those around me bop their heads to the catchy Motown-infused soundtrack, clamor each time The Shogun of Harlem, Sho'nuff (Julius Carry), himself walked on screen and laugh hysterically as Leroy Green awkwardly tells his love interest Laura Charles (played by Prince’s once muse Vanity) that losing one’s virginity is basically like using a paint brush.
The Last Dragon is an urban fairytale on top, a spectacle right down to Leroy using chopsticks to eat his popcorn in his local movie theater. But once all the bright set pieces, gaudy costumes and cheesy line delivery have been removed, the heart of The Last Dragon holds true to the same thread in most of Lee’s work. The hero must die to himself in order to achieve his full greatness and accept his true purpose. The film begins as Leroy has almost reached the completion in his martial arts training. His teacher, played by Thomas Ikeda, explains to Leroy that in order to achieve the final step, he must go where he has never journeyed to find the Master of Harlem. This sparks Leroy’s quest, as he hopes to find someone who just might have as much power as Bruce Lee himself.
The Last Dragon relies a bit too little heavily on its callbacks to Lee’s previous motion pictures. Enter the Dragon plays on the theater screen as Leroy and Sho'nuff meet and fight for the first time. Clips of Lee’s 1972 film The Chinese Connection can be watched in the background as Leroy and Laura share their first on-screen kiss. But Lee is more than just inspiration for Leroy. To Leroy and even most Americans who were obsessed with the Kung-Fu phenomenon, Bruce Lee is the ultimate Master, a level that cannot be achieved for just any regular kid in Harlem. This speaks heavily to Leroy’s own self-doubt. Too early in the film does Leroy bow down to nemesis Sho'nuff, bending down weakly to kiss the man’s Converses instead of proving he has the strength to defend himself. Leroy bumbles like an idiot each time he spends time with Laura, a video disc jockey who everyone, except Leroy, can see has clearly got it bad for him. And even his own younger brother Richie (Leo O’Brien) constantly teases him for choosing his peaceful way of life. Still, Leroy is desperate to find one that could bring change to those around him. “Imagine the wonder that someone like this could bring into the world,” Leroy gushes to Laura. He has not yet realized that if he were to look inside of himself, he would become the Master that his community needs.
It takes another visit to Leroy’s teacher to prove that the Master does not need to resemble Bruce Lee or fit any type of mold in order to achieve one’s purpose. As Leroy begins to realize this, it is as if Lee himself begins to direct and stage his every move in the final scene. Finally realizing his own purpose, Leroy plays opposite to both of his opponents, Sho'nuff and Eddie Arkadian (Christopher Murney), with the finesse of a true martial arts doyen. As if Lee was guiding his hands, Leroy contracts as Sho'nuff expands. He expands as Sho'nuff contracts. As he finally achieves his true form and glows, emanating his true purpose, Leroy defeats Sho'nuff. Like Bruce Lee before him, Leroy glows with an aura of his own self-empowerment in each shot. To us he has achieved legendary status. To us, he has become his own Master, the Last Dragon.