Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; where we get racist and you beat up the guy who typically runs this column because of it. Resident ingester of films that cause cinematic diabetes, Brian Salisbury, was given a week’s furlough once it became dangerously clear he was developing morbidly obese eye sockets. Rather than feed himself a healthy diet of Gone With the Wind and Terrence Malick pictures he decided he’d much rather just be like Gandhi and starve, because that’s precisely what Gandhi had in mind to inspire people. So, send your well wishes to firstname.lastname@example.org because he’d like to know you care.
For those of you new to the column the idea is one-fold. We are fat and eat a lot of bad movies. Thank you, it’s been fun.
I’m kidding. There is more-fold. The truth is, for all of our focus and interest in filmmaking as an art form we also can’t help ourselves to the more-frequent-than-just-occasional ordering of some of the most undeniably suspect yet admittedly irresistible dishes in moviedom. Welcome to the Waffle House of film columns. Once the film of choice is decided upon we will break down precisely each awfully unhealthy ingredient we can find and then despite itself defend how in the hell it all managed to come together and form something regrettably delicious. Finally, once we’ve raised our heads back up from shame and depression we’ll suggest an accompanying snack to munch on so that your mouth can suffer the same fate as your retinas.
While Brian goes through detox he thought it an interesting experiment for me to take my palette of appreciation for important film and muddy it with something incredibly not that. I took a gander at the menu and, sho’nuff, came across one of my favorite I-wish-I-knew-how-to-quit-you movie desserts – chocolate-covered fortune cookies that are completely void of little wisdom slips. Again, you can email your complaints of racism to email@example.com.
So, grab your chopsticks and boombox and venture with me into the streets of 1980’s Harlem to seek the one and only Mastah in Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon.
What Makes It Bad?
Historically speaking, people who don’t have last names don’t usually make good actors (yeah, yeah…shut up Cher and Mo’Nique ‘cause you got lucky). The Last Dragon not only has two people who have rid themselves of their family names, it has both people in the lead male and female roles – and Taimak and Vanity don’t disappoint at keeping in line with history. I would say that a lot has to do with a lack of believability their two characters would ever actually be interested in one another, but no…it’s kinda them too.
Taimak’s Leroy Green is supposed to be very naïve, shy and clueless at how to be hip and Taimak seems particularly good at actually being all of those things when it comes to trying to act like all of those things.
As for Vanity, when she isn’t making you question the desire to enter any of the first six heavens with her performance of “7th Heaven” she’s asked to fall for a guy who’s on an important “quest” to find a kung-fu master named…wait for it…Sum Dum Goy, aaaaallll the way on the other side of the same town, because he holds the key to understanding the highest level of enlightenment; and if one can achieve such enlightenment, one will glow. Not metaphorically glow, and not in the way pregnant women do; you will actually have a fluorescent halo around your body that will help you kick ass real good and a theme song will play for you.
Also, the Leroy Green character has an infatuation with wanting to convey a presence of being Chinese, which in and of itself isn’t bad, but what’s strange is that it’s a borderline racial stereotype version of Chinese. I’ll give it to him that his intentions are purely harmless, but if I were Chinese and met his character I would probably feel pretty damn insulted and want to break his bamboo hat and make him cry. Everything from the attire to his use of chopsticks for popcorn and overstated politeness reeks of a sarcastic slap in the face to the Chinese, and I’d feel compelled to return the favor.
Thankfully, the movie does just that. When Leroy finds the fortune cookie plant headed by Sum Dum Goy (*sigh*) the group of Chinamen guarding the building’s secret master are the vice versa personae of Leroy. They want to be just as Harlem black as Leroy wants to be humbly Chinese. When they blow him off for appearing to not be black, he tries to infiltrate the building by pretending to be TOO stereotypically black so that he can be accepted as exactly what they’re not and are trying to be. When they ask him if he’s the guy they sent away earlier he responds by saying, and I quote, “No, we all just look alike.”
This is how bad cultural habits start, Movie!
Throw in a bad guy who everyone fears despite being the size of Danny DeVito and having a handful of goons that can get beat up, convincingly, by a group of kids, as well as a Harlem gang of thugs dressed like Michael Jackson in the post-apocalypse and you get a picture that makes 1980s Harlem seem like the place the U.S. government told everyone with an identity crisis to go and live.
Why I Like It
Despite a lack of chemistry between the two leads, and not really liking much about either of them, the film does a really good job of surrounding them with legitimately likable secondary characters. On the side of the good guys is actor Glen Eaton as Johnny, one of Leroy’s martial arts students and friends. Eaton, with only two acting credits total to his name, fits in well as the underdog student who acknowledges his own inability to fight yet repeatedly attempts to convey proficiency at being a martial artist. Then, when he’s finally put into a situation where he has to fight his genuinely pleasant personality help make it a sincere stand-up-and-cheer moment when he finds out he’s actually pretty good at it.
On the side of the bad guys is none other than one of the most memorable villains in cult cinema – the Shogun of Harlem himself, Sho’nuff. Oddly enough though, watching Sho’nuff fight is a bit misleading towards how menacing his character actually is, because if you were just to watch him fight it would look really confusing as to why people don’t just move the hell out of the way. He is in no way fast with his hands. Or feet. Or comebacks. However, regardless of that it’s his “Kiss my Converse” attitude and “Nigga please” demeanor that make him such a great foil. It’s as if Mr. T and Dr. J had a love child that was subjected to electroshock therapy for the first ten years of his life and instead of getting brain-fried, he just got pissed off.
For all of the film’s shortcomings it also never really puts forth a desire to be taken seriously. It knows what it is and doesn’t fight it. It isn’t exactly the best at being what it probably does want to be, but it has enough pieces that hit their mark that when the third act arrives and the big fights begin you’ll find you’ve actually become invested in the well-being of some of the characters; so much to the point that when little Ernie Reyes Jr. gets angry at seeing Johnny get punched hard in the back a little part of your insides will say to your mouth “smile…because ooooohhhhhh shit, it’s about to go down.”
Not to mention, William H. Macy appears on screen for a whole two minutes and says words. That’s already 2 percent of the movie that’s good.
Junkfood Pairing: Yellow cake with chocolate frosting
Please direct all comments of my being racially insensitive to….nevermind. Yeah, y’know what, what of it?! It’s friggin’ delicious and if Leroy wants to be Bruce Lee on the inside while looking like Leroy Green on the outside then good on him and I’m gonna have a piece of cake that is metaphorically as racist as he is. Light up some sparklers to stick in the top, and that cake will have reached the highest level of enlightenment. It will be the Mastah of Cakes and will catch bullets with its teeth.
Editor’s Note: If you happen to find actual teeth in your cake then you should probably stop eating it.