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.