Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Last Dragon (1985)

Back in the 1980s, my friends and I would rent movies and hang out on a regular basis. There were certain types of movies that we would rent more often than others: horror films, action films, and sex comedies like Porky’s (1981) and Spring Break (1983). When it came to action films, we had a particular love for vigilantes and revenge stories. We also had a love of martial arts.

In real life, one of my friends signed up for Tae Kwon Do classes, and he eventually talked me and another friend into joining him in this pursuit. This increased our interest in martial arts infused action films. We saw Bruce Lee films, we saw fake Bruce Lee films (starring Bruce Li or Bruce Le). We also saw other, strange kung fu movies from the ’70s that I can’t even remember now (other than a few, brief images). We saw ninja movies. We even went to the theatre and saw something called Challenge Of The Ninja – but we were disappointed to discover that it wasn’t a ninja movie at all. It was another strange Hong Kong movie, which struck us as propaganda about how much better Chinese martial arts were than Japanese martial arts. It may have been Heroes of the East (1978), retitled to cash in on the popularity of ninjas in the ’80s. Looking back now, I’m kind of thrilled to know that I got to see a movie like that on the big screen. 

Of course, Chuck Norris films were also a big deal at that time. This was years before the Chuck Norris jokes became all the rage. In those days, he was just an amazing athlete and an action movie hero. He was even buddies with Bruce Lee in real life, and the two of them appeared together in a film called Return Of The Dragon (1972). At least, that’s what it was called when I saw it. It’s more often called The Way of the Dragon (1972), which answers a question that I had when I was 12. How could this movie be called Return Of The Dragon when it came out BEFORE Enter the Dragon (1973)? In any case, I thought that the final fight between Lee and Norris was one of the greatest I had ever seen. I somehow convinced my Dad to take me to see Lone Wolf McQuade (1983) when it came out, and I thought it was the greatest movie I had even seen. I quickly rented every other Chuck Norris film I could get my hands on. 

I remember seeing the newspaper ads for The Last Dragon (1985). It looked like the kind of movie that my friends and I would appreciate. I’m not sure why, but we didn’t go to see it in the theatre. I might have assumed that it wasn’t around long enough, but someone recently told me that he went to see it THREE TIMES in the theatre. That puts it in the category of a Star Wars movie back in the day. And according to the IMDb, it made quite a big profit at the time: $25,754,284 on a $10,000,000 budget. So that movie must have stuck around the theatres for at least a few weeks. How did my friends and I miss it?

All I can say for sure, is that when it came out on home video, my friends and I rented it immediately. But here’s the weird part: we didn’t like it.

That’s right. We watched the popular and successful martial arts movie The Last Dragon and we didn’t like it.  I think that we were expecting a more ordinary, straight up martial arts action movie. We expected it to be serious – and to maybe include some sort of revenge plot a la Forced Vengeance (1982) or An Eye for an Eye (1981). Instead, we got a comedy, which included a lot of gratuitous music and dancing. I’m not even sure if we realized that it as comedy at the time, or if we just thought it was weird and not serious enough. My single biggest memory of it was that it seemed to be more about music than marital arts. 

I suppose this makes a certain amount of sense when you realize the the film was executive produced by Berry Gordy, who was a record producer, songwriter, and founder of Motown Records. We wouldn’t have appreciated this as teenagers. We just knew that there was A LOT of music in this movie. And it was not the kind of music that we were into at that time. We were big fans of bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. The Motown sound was not cool to us. Over the ensuing decades, my tastes have broadened and I can now appreciate the Motown sound of the ’80s much more than I could back in the day. The nostalgia levels are off the charts when I hear a song like “Rhythm Of The Night” by DeBarge (written by Diane Warren). I probably hated it in the ’80s, but it sounds surprisingly great to me now. And we actually get to see a good portion of the music video in the movie as well. This is particularly poignant for me, as I have recently discovered that one of the featured dancers in the video is Galyn Görg.

For those who don’t know, Galyn Görg was a dancer and an actress who appeared in movies like Point Break (1991) and RoboCop 2 (1990). She was also in a few episodes of Twin Peaks (1991-92), and was a regular cast member of M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994-95). Several years ago, I tweeted about a movie she was in called America 3000 (1986). As I often did in those days, I tried to locate and tag anyone involved in the film. This is harder to do with older movies. Galyn was one of the few that I managed to find in this case. Much to my surprise, she not only liked my tweet (and the subsequent replies to it), but she also followed me. I’m not sure what made her do it. She followed less than two hundred people – in spite of having thousands of followers. But what was even more amazing to me, was that she continued to respond to my tweets from that day forward.

In all honestly, I was not the world’s most savvy twitter use in those days. And up to that point, my tweets would often go ignored. But for the next couple of years, there was one person who I could count on to like most of my tweets – and that was Galyn Görg. I don’t know what I did to deserve it, but I was thrilled. And of course, I liked all of her tweets, too. She even followed @DBrownstoneFilm, which was an account created to promote my documentary (and subsequent feature film project) about legendary Manitoba actress Doreen Brownstone. 

Basically, Galyn Görg was one of my first twitter friends. 

Sadly, Galyn passed away in July of 2020, one day shy of her 56th birthday.

Seeing the video for “Rhythm Of The Night” in The Last Dragon somehow made the film all the more special to me. It’s almost like Galyn Görg is in the movie (although, not really). But even if that had not happened, I loved seeing all of the music and dance sequences this time around. All of the things that made me hate the movie the first time, made me love it now. Vanity, most famous as a singer and protege of Prince, stars as a D.J. (or V.J.) host of a popular TV Show / night club. This is how we get to see so many musical performances and videos. A gangster, who also seems to be some sort of video arcade mogul, wants to force Vanity to play his girlfriend’s video on her show. The girlfriend is played by Faith Prince, and her videos/performances are clearly meant to “bad” – in an entertaining way – but I found them to be absolutely delightful. They are perfect, satirical 1980s avant guard time capsules. And I think in some ways they have aged better then many “serious” pop hits of the ’80s. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the real star of The Last Dragon. Real life martial artist Taimak plays Leroy Green. There is clearly a lot of serious Bruce Lee homage going on here. Leroy loves Bruce Lee, and there is even a scene in which Vanity’s character plays video footage of Bruce Lee in her club to impress Leroy. The martial arts action in The Last Dragon is solid. Taimak is very clearly the real deal, and it seems to me that he could have been a martial arts movie star. For some reason, that didn’t quite happen (although he did go on to appear in other – often non-martial arts – movies). I’m surprised that my friends and I weren’t more impressed by the action when we watched this film back in the day. I guess it truly was overshadowed by the music and comedy.

One final thought, which comes a bit too close to SPOILER territory for my taste: Leroy is in pursuit of the final level of martial arts mastery, which is called The Glow. At the end of the movie, we see The Glow in action – and I think that this was something else that my friends and I didn’t like. It’s sort of silly, fantasy type stuff; beams of glowing light coming out of Leroy’s hands and body. I don’t want to say too much about it, but I think we thought it was dumb and not at all realistic (keep in mind that we were young and taking real martial arts classes at the time). Like every other aspect of this film that I hated back then, I found that it only enhanced my enjoyment now.

The Last Dragon (1985) is a unique masterpiece of 1980s #NotQuiteClassicCinema that I wish I had appreciated more the first time that I saw it. I’ve lost a lot of decades in which I could have been revisiting and enjoying this film. But then again, maybe that just means that I can enjoy it al the more now – and I surely will on many a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn in the not too distant future.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Willie Dynamite (1974)

I have a lot of Blaxploitation films in my collection. I discovered the genre, without even knowing it was a genre, at a fairly young age. I’m honestly not sure which movie would have been the first Blaxploitation movie that I ever saw. Some possible contenders might be Three the Hard Way (1974), Penitentiary (1979), Black Caesar (1973) and Shaft (1971),

Shaft is a funny one, because I have a distinct memory of watching it on TV when I was very young, and losing interest in it part way through. Basically, I thought it was boring. For years, I believed that this was my experience of Shaft and I avoided watching it again. Finally, when I gave it another shot, I realized that it could not have been the movie that had bored me all those years ago. For one thing, I loved it. But more to the point, I did not recognize a single moment in it. I decided that it must have been one of the sequels that I had seen all those years ago. But when I watched Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), they were even less like the movie in my memory. To this day, I don’t know how to explain it. I watched some movie that I was pretty convinced was Shaft when I was a kid. What could it have been? I hope to figure it out one day.

In a funny way, the very first Blaxploitation film I saw was actually Live and Let Die (1973). I was a huge James Bond films growing up, and I watched all of the movies, multiple times, whenever they came on TV. This was, of course, before VCRs. Had I been able to tape stuff, I’m sure I would have seen all of the Bond films many more times. As it was, I saw Live and Let Die (1973) several times growing up, and it was one of my favourites. Of course, I had never heard the term Blaxploitation, and I didn’t think of the characters in the movie as black or white. They were just characters. It wasn’t until many years later that I heard someone suggest that Live and Let Die was hugely influenced by the (at the time) very popular Blaxploitation genre. This surprised me, but I thought about it and realized that a person could almost see the movie as being part of it.

Somewhere throughout my early days of TV movie watching, I recall seeing Willie Dynamite (1974) listed in the TV Scene (our local newspaper’s TV guide). In fact, I recall noticing it being on more than once. It was a strange title, so it stuck out to me. I may have even stumbled upon an actual broadcast one night, flipping the channel and finding myself in the middle of a strange looking movie that I didn’t recognize. I opened the TV Scene to find out what I was looking at, and Willie Dynamite was the answer. I’ve never liked starting movies in the middle, so I didn’t stick around and watch it. But the brief glimpses I got made me realize that It was something that I should definitely see sometime. Unfortunately, it was usually on very late at night, and I had no way to tape it (yet). So, I didn’t wind up seeing the movie until quite a few years later, on VHS. 

The thing that remember most from that first viewing, is the theme song, “Willie D.” (written by Gilbert Moses,the film’s director, & J.J. Johnson). Like a lot of the best #Blaxploitation films, the songs on the soundtrack tend to comment on the action of the movie. “Willie D.” is what I might call a perfect character song, describing the titular character of this movie:

Seven women in the palm of his hand,
Willie D.,
Got a woman for every man,
Willie D..
It’s magic the way he runs his game,
Never treating two girls the same,
Selling fantasies,
’bout what you please,
It’s no different from any other industry…

And while Martha Reeves belts out these lyrics on the soundtrack, we see the credits play overtop images of seven beautiful women walking into a hotel lobby full of middle aged conventioneers. It doesn’t take genius to figure out that these are working women looking to connect with some lonely, out of town men with money. And those men clearly like what they see. The mini scenes that ensue are mainly played for laughs, and between the music, the lyrics, and the comedic action, the opening sequence is a pure delight. We also see images of Willie D. himself, in a fancy hat and shades, driving in his fancy car with personalized plates that say “DYNAMITE”. He pulls over and gets out of the car, revealing his whole outfit for the first time – and it is a fashion statement that must be seen to be believed. Willie D. is the epitome of the stereotypical pimp – at least how he is portrayed in 1970s pop culture. Whether or not he is a reflection of reality, past or present, is beside the point. He is a larger than life character with a larger than life theme song. And by the time the music ends, we feel that we know exactly who he is, and I, for one, felt like I’d already had my money’s worth. This movie was awesome…

Watching Willie Dynamite for what must have been the third time last #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn, I was struck by how much more serious-minded the movie is than many of it’s brethren. This may seem like an odd thing to say, considering that Willie Dynamite contains plenty of funny bits, both intentional and unintentional, but the movie manages to tell a rather serious story while making us laugh. It is over-the-top with its fashions and attitudes, but it is not particularly exploitative. It’s about pimps and prostitutes, but it does not contain any nudity. The main character, Willie D., is played by Roscoe Orman who most us know as Gordon on Sesame Street. He is quite convincing as Willie D., showing a completely different side of himself. Diana Sands plays Cora, a social worker (and ex-prostitute) who makes it her mission to destroy Willie – or does she? In the final act of the movie, characters make unexpected choices that resonate with real human emotion. Put simply, the movie gets better. The characters become more real, and what could have been a stereotypical, by the numbers ending becomes something so much more powerful. 

I hate spoilers, so I’ll stop there and hope that I haven’t already said too much. I should note that Diana Sands, who is excellent in this movie, died of leiomyosarcoma in 1973 – presumably before this movie was released. She was only 39.

Gilbert Moses was a theatre director, and co-founded the Free Southern Theater company which, according to Wikipedie, was “an important pioneer of African-American theatre” in 1963. Willie Dynamite was his first film. He went on to direct a lot of television. He died in 1995 at age 52.

Willie Dynamite (1974) is a #NotQuiteClassicCinema classic that probably gets less respect than it should. It’s too bad that Gilbert Moses didn’t give us any other films like it. The closest he came was The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979), which a friend of mine once told me was the first film his father took him to see in the theatre. Strange choice, but certainly unforgettable. I wish I had seen Willie Dynamite on TV all those years ago. It probably would have blown my mind. 

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: That Man Bolt (1973)

Back in the late ’80s (or maybe it was the early ’90s), I remember coming home from work just before midnight, making myself a late night dinner/snack of frozen pizza, and sitting down in front of the TV to watch whatever happened to be on. There were a couple of channels that showed movies at midnight, and I would often put one on, not even knowing what it was if I missed the opening credits, and get caught up. On this particular night it was That Man Bolt (1973). I knew who Fred Williamson was, and had already enjoyed movies like Vigilante (1982), Black Caesar (1973) and Three the Hard Way (1974), but I had never heard of That Man Bolt.

I knew right away that I was onto something, when Fred’s character, Jefferson Bolt, was told by a mysterious government figure that he would have to work for them if he wanted to get his valuable (perhaps incriminating) documents returned to him. This mysterious organization had kept Bolt locked up for a week while they searched his home for the important papers. In the end, they had to use a metal detector to find his safe – which, as we can all see, was hidden behind a picture on the wall.

I think I fell off my chair. laughing. They couldn’t find a safe that was hidden behind a picture on the wall?! Every safe I’d ever seen in the movies had been hidden behind a picture on the wall. But these guys were checking, where – behind the sofa? Under the kitchen sink? And if it hadn’t been for the use of that metal detector, the location of Bolt’s safe would still be a mystery to them.

I was less than ten minutes into That Man Bolt, and I knew I’d struck cinema gold – and without the use of a metal detector.

That Man Bolt was probably made to cash in on the recent success of the so-called Blaxploitation genre. Movies like Shaft (1971) were very successful and led to sequels like Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973). Apparently, Universal signed Fred Williamson to star in three movies as Jefferson Bolt, so they clearly intended That Man Bolt to be the start of a movie series (or franchise, as people now say). It probably also helped that Fred Williamson had been successful in Black Caesar (1973), which had led to its own sequel Hell Up in Harlem (1973).

Universal seemed to be aiming for something a little closer to the James Bond, international intrigue kind of feel as opposed to the more typical urban crime setting of many Blaxploitation films. James Bond. Jefferson Bolt. Bond. Bolt. Coincidence? Look at one of the tag lines found on a movie poster for That Man Bolt: “He’s “Bonded”! “

Setting the film in British Hong Kong, where Bolt lives, and casting British character actor Byron Webster as Griffiths, the mysterious government man who forces Bolt into service, gives the film a more British feel. And even though Bolt asks Griffiths if he is CIA, it’s obvious that he would more likely be on her majesty’s secret service.

Another market that the movie seemed to be aiming for was the martial arts crowd. Bolt is described as a black belt, and some of the movie posters say this:

SEE these famous MARTIAL ARTS experts in action: Mike Stone–World Professional Light Heavyweight, Karate Champion, Ken Kazama–Japan Kick-boxing Champion, Emil Farkas–European Black Belt Karate Champion, and David Chow–Former California State Judo Champion.

I suppose that the success of Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon (1973) may have had a hand in that.

Considering everything that it had going for it, That Man Bolt seems like it should have been a surefire success. I’m not sure how it did at the box-office, but none of the sequels were ever made, and Jefferson Bolt did not become an iconic character. As much as I enjoyed the movie on late night TV all of those years ago (and on home video several times since), the truth is that it’s not as good as it needs to be. It has moments of brilliance, and Fred Williamson is perfect as the charismatic, clever, tough and capable action hero. But it never rises up to the level of James Bond, Shaft, or Black Caesar. Perhaps if they had made the sequels, each one would have improved and Jefferson Bolt would have gone down in history. Even James Bond had an iffy start with Dr. No (1962). It’s a good movie, but most fans agree that From Russia with Love (1963) and Goldfinger (1964) were better. If they had simply stopped after Dr. No, would people still be talking about James Bond now? Who knows?

I have always had a soft spot for That Man Bolt (1973), and I’ve been a fan of Fred Williamson since I first saw William Lustig’s Vigilante when I was 12 or 13. So, Jefferson Bolt will always be a welcome visitor on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.

And I, for one, wish that they had made the sequels. But oh well… we’ll just have to make do with one “Big, bad and beautiful” piece of #NotQuiteClassicCinema.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Trick Baby (1972)

I did not see Trick Baby (1972) back in the 1970s or even the 1980s. It was not the first so called Blaxploitation film – or even the second or the third – that I ever saw. I had never even heard of it until I stumbled upon a VHS copy back in the early 2000s. Of course I immediately bought it, as I’d long before discovered that I had an appreciation for these somewhat forgotten pieces of 1970s cinema. And I was not disappointed with this particular example of the genre.

If you are unfamiliar with the term Blaxploitation, you can read detailed explanations on Wikipedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica. 

It is generally accepted that the two movies that started the genre proper were Shaft (1971) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), so Trick Baby (1972) was a relatively early entry in what quickly became an overcrowded competition for box office dollars. According to Wikipedia, the film cost about $600,000 to make and it grossed $11,000,000 – a considerable profit. So how is it that I’d never heard of it before?

I suppose one reason might be that it didn’t lead to sequels, like Shaft did. Nor did it spark a bunch of similar films starring the same actor(s), a la Pam Grier with Coffy (1973). But I suppose none of this really matters. The fact is that Trick Baby is an excellent crime film. It’s clever, suspenseful, and features a few twists and turns that keep you interested in finding out what’s going to happen. Most importantly, you care about the characters. 

When we first meet ‘Folks and Blue (played by Kiel Martin and Mel Stewart), they are in the midst or ripping someone off. But we are instantly sympathetic to them, because the person they are ripping off is a bad guy (racist, selfish – and in fact he believes that he is ripping off Blue). So, in a sense, the ‘victim’ of the con is getting exactly what he deserves. Not to mention that we can admire the skill, intelligence, and charisma that ‘Folks and Blue possess. They may technically be criminals, but they are kind of like Robin Hood (stealing from rich racists and giving to the poor – namely themselves).

I can think of a few modern films that feature main characters who are killing people (!), who don’t deserve to die, for incredibly selfish reasons – and the filmmakers seem to be asking us to sympathize with the killers! Or to at least to find them interesting for 90 minutes. I find many of those films hard to get through – and I certainly don’t care what happens to the main characters. In fact, I find myself rooting for their victims (and getting no satisfaction, unfortunately). John Waters knew how to make it work in Serial Mom (1994), and Larry Yust, and presumably Iceberg Slim (who wrote the novel), knew how to make it work in Trick Baby. ‘Folks and Blue aren’t even killing people, but they could have been unsympathetic in the hands of less competent writers and directors. The makers of certain modern films should have watched Trick Baby before they put pen to paper, or hit the record button on their cameras. 

I’m purposely not naming any of the offending films or filmmakers because I’m not here to trash other people’s work. And I’m sure that some people LIKE those recent films that I believe are failures. To each their own, as the saying goes. But I would watch Trick Baby a thousand times before I would re-watch any of them. 

Trick Baby (1972) is a #NotQuiteClassicCinema favourite. It has a sense of humour, but it also manages to generate suspense from its earliest moments and then slowly increase the tension over the course of the entire film. A rare feat, in my opinion. You know it’s going to be a memorable #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn when Trick Baby is on the marquee.