Welcome to Retro Reviews, a new series by Daily News Film Critic Frank Stanko. In his free time, Frank likes to watch classic movies. For 2020, he’s focusing on works celebrating their 35th anniversary. He’s offering these reviews for readers looking for something off the beaten path to see while theaters are closed. First up: “The Last Dragon,” which premiered on March 22, 1985.
“Playtime’s over, boy,” Sho’nuff, the “Shogun of Harlem” (Julius J. Carry III) tells hero Leroy Green (Taimak) during their final battle.
The sentiment is true for the men, but not for their movie. “The Last Dragon” unfolds like something being dreamed up by kids at play. The story is simple, repetitive and familiar. It’s not even surprising that “The Glow,” which Leroy seeks, translates to actual colored energy coming from bodies and able to be used like a weapon.
Director Michael Schultz (who’s still active in TV), screenwriter Louis Venosta (who made his debut with “Dragon”) and producer Berry Gordy (yes, the Motown founder) already tipped their hats to movies like “The Karate Kid” and “Footloose.” Why shouldn’t they pay their respects to “Star Wars”?
Leroy, who’s reached Last Dragon-level proficiency in martial arts, is searching for “The Master” to help him use the force … sorry, achieve the glow. No points for guessing where Leroy finds The Master. While the audience waits for the inevitable, Leroy, his family and his friends are menaced by Sho’nuff.
“Am I the meanest?” Sho’nuff demands. “Am I the prettiest? Am I the baddest mofo lowdown around the town?”
Leroy has also fallen in love with Laura Charles (Vanity, who made this movie rather than “Purple Rain”), a TV hostess who’s gotten on the bad side of Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney). Laura won’t play the tacky music video starring Eddie’s nasal-voiced, outrageously coiffed girlfriend, Angela Viracco (Faith Prince). Any resemblance to Cyndi Lauper was intentional, pop culture historians agree.
“The Last Dragon” is perhaps best remembered for “Rhythm of the Night,” which plays during Laura’s show. Sung by my fellow Grand Rapids, Michigan natives, DeBarge, the song reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on both the adult contemporary and R&B charts.
Lester Wilson (“Saturday Night Fever,” “Sister Act”) choreographed most of the movie. At the same time, I don’t think he should be blamed for “7th Heaven,” featuring Vanity’s, uh, distinct moves. Like many a non-dancer (including me), she relies on hand gestures and head bobs to get the point across.
Every so often, “The Last Dragon” manages to blend its seemingly disparate elements together and there’s a good enough scene or performance. Murney and Prince are fun opposite each other. Vanity had presence if nothing else. And Taimak is an appealing lead.
I mostly liked the relationship between Leroy and his adolescent brother Richie (Leo O’Brien), who has a crush on Laura. It’s obvious that the two Ls will end up together, but it’s not because Richie is lacking swag. As he tells Leroy, there’s an art to making love. “And you don’t even have a paint brush.”
Who could stay mad at Richie? C’mon, he popped and locked his way out of ropes. Not only that, he survived hitting his head on some metal cylinder when Sho’nuff tossed him. Speaking of “Kids, don’t try this at home!” stunts, there’s the finale, where Leroy catches a bullet in his teeth.
“The Last Dragon” has a whole that’s less than the sum of its parts. “All that ripping off, and this is as good as it gets?” I thought. Still, there’s a goofy charm to the whole affair.
“Sometimes it is hard to live the way of the wise,” Leroy muses after an encounter with Sho’nuff.
“Huh?” a friend replies.
I give “The Last Dragon” a Recommended with Reservations rating. It’s available for streaming through Crackle, Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.
Additional thoughts and trivia:
• The movie grossed $25.7 million on a $10 million budget, coming in at No. 33 for 1985.
• “(It’s) designed for those who can’t bear the monotony of only one thought or sound or activity at a time,” Janet Maslin wrote in her original New York Times review.
• Eddie and Angela keep an apparently enormous piranha in a tank, but the idea has no payoff. There’s the obligatory gag where a large amount of meat on a bone is quickly eaten. Later, Eddie is briefly dunked, but he only ends up wet, not bloody.
• The soundtrack includes “Fire,” performed by Charlene. Yes, that’s right, she didn’t just sing “I’ve Never Been to Me.” The music video for “Fire” is only shown in-universe because Eddie was messing around with the equipment at 7th Heaven.
• Hey, It’s …!: Keshia Knight Pulliam, Chazz Palminteri and William H. Macy have bit roles.
• For those watching at home, know that “Desperately Seeking Susan” is planned for the weekend of March 29. It’s available through Vudu, Amazon Prime and iTunes.