One of my unofficial life goals is to find the quintessential 80's movie, which does suggest something like The Breakfast Club or Top Gun, wherein it is a cool and well-received film that has managed to attain a timeless appeal. This is not what I think of when I think of the ideal movie to reflect 80's cinema, I want something, instead, that is so absurdly indicative of the era and all of its will excess as to live in a world entirely all its own. As it stands two films that reflect this quite well in my mind are Earth Girls Are Easy and Miami Connection, both being completely insane and relatively lesser known for the time. Nonetheless, between fashions that became dated within the year of the film and soundtracks so influenced by musical shifts from the 80's as to have a place on MTV Classic, more so that their own films. This quest is completely arbitrary so when I do discover new additions to the choices, I usually just dump them into a Letterboxd list for future reference, making discoveries quite rewarding. When I began pulling films together for my kung-fu marathon I certainly would never have guessed that any of the films from the marathon would possibly make it into the consideration for quintessential eighties film, but I had also never heard about The Last Dragon prior to it being suggested as an addition to the month of film viewing. What exists with The Last Dragon is a endearing homage to all things Bruce Lee, that takes a note out of music/dance based films from the time like House Party and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, while also embracing the post-punk anarchism that has made works like Repo Man and Jubilee possess a long established identity as counter cinema. Everything about The Last Dragon could have only existed in 1985 and it is a gift of magnificent proportions, proving to be nothing short of a time capsule for what was considered to be cool to urban communities, while creating a surprisingly poignant narrative about race and capitalist privilege. Furthermore, if one were to consider The Wu-Tang Clan's embracing of kung fu as a pinnacle of its cultural influence, The Last Dragon is certainly one of the more absurd results of its then rising pertinence.
The Last Dragon focuses on the character of Leroy Green (Taimak) whose sole vision in life is to become a martial arts master, under the enigmatic tutelage of an ancient sage. What makes this quest rather unusual, however, is that Leroy is undertaking his quest, not in an ancient Chinese temple, but in the streets of New York City, where urban gangs run things and all youth seem transfixed on making their presence known on a local music revue show run by the charming Laura Charles (Vanity). Leroy would seem quite content to continue on his existence detached from these issues, where it not for a sudden concern by local gang leader Sho'nuff The Shogun of Harlem (Julius Carry) finding it necessary to challenge Leroy for kung fu master supremacy. Furthermore, when a rich video game and television producer named Eddie Arkadian (Christopher Murney) feels it necessary to place his new girlfriend in the music business, he attempts to kidnap Laura and force her into agreeing to have say in the shows music. Leroy steps in to intervene in the attack, thus gaining the affections of Laura, as well as the ill-will of Eddie. All the while, Sho'nuff continues to pester Leroy, whose poise frustrates the enraged fighter, so much so that he attacks Leroy's family business as a means to draw him out of his zen detachment. Meanwhile, Leroy who is still on his quest to find out who the master truly is becomes more involved in the villainy of Eddie who eventually does kidnap Laura, demanding that Leroy should show up to the studio to win her back, although he fails to mention that the entire thing will be taped and serve as a large scale martial arts battle, that Eddie hopes will bring tons of new viewership to his production. This battle involves all the most brutish and maniacal of gang lords, who Leroy takes down one by one, yet when the entirety of the gang world attacks, Leroy is aided by his dojo members whose skills make quick work of the untrained fighters of the gangs. Eddie then lures Leroy underground where he fights Sho'nuff one on one, realizing that Sho'nuff possesses unusual skills and powers. Yet, thinking back upon the words of his sage, Leroy realizes he too is a master, thus turning into a electrified new fighter that overcomes Sho'nuff and even stops a bullet with his mouth when Eddie attacks, thus saving Laura and certifying his place as the true master of martial arts in urban New York.
As a film set in the mid 1980's urban landscape, a commentary is of little to no surprise. Yet, The Last Dragon does not seem entirely dismissive of the possibilities of integration, wherein, other films of the era would have made the white character forever a thing to mock, especially in works like House Party where whiteness is purposefully made a point of otherness as a revolt against narrative tradition. Indeed, excluding the hyper-absurd characters of Eddie and his girlfriend everyone else seems quite at ease with a racially unified territory. As such, it then becomes a film that is expressly concerned with what this landscape can do to provide itself with an ideal landscape void of violence. The obvious answer arises through the figure of Leroy whose passivity through most of the film is not an act of weakness or fear, but one that understands that violence in a society such as mid-80's urban New York is counterproductive and only feeds into existing states of oppression and damage. He is also not a sexually aggressive figure and is arguably asexual throughout most of the film, despite being clearly admired by Laura. The film decidedly sets up Leroy in a narrative that also depicts absurd versions of black masculinity, as well as other forms of masculinity in order to suggest that it is not the racial part of the performance that should be criticized, but instead the aggressive nature of masculinity that is problematic. If one considers Leroy then to be a new version of the masculine, it makes his bout between the ring of male gang bosses take on a new layer, especially since he seems to do so with an ease and passivity that is neither violent or an assertion of male aggression, a notion furthered by the presence of his dojo students, who have also learned their own new non-opressive masculinity. Of course, Leroy must still over come Eddie and his white male privilege, evidenced through his quick use of a gun, but as the narrative suggests, it is often not the violent act that ends another, but a literal use of the mouth (i.e. words) to change a situation. Given the chance to destroy Eddie, Leroy instead restrains him until authorities arrive, placing hope in an evolving system, as opposed to self-imposed justice and the rule of the streets. Indeed, it is no small accident that the film ends with the characters dancing while wearing all-white, shedding the punk and thug clothes of earlier scenes in favor of a societal change and metaphorical birth of unity.
Key Scene: While out of principle I want to choose the moment when a young (still old looking) William H. Macy shows up, but it is definitely the scene at the television studio when Leroy fights the ring of gang bosses while Eddie's face is projected on large screens. It is a metaphor on power and influence delivered brilliantly.
This is available on Hulu and well worth engaging with for its humor and absurdity.