"Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon," a raffish, raucous martial arts/rock 'n' roll/coming-of-age romp, has the kind of energy that's hardly ever seen in movies anymore -- the screen vibrates with it. An intoxicating blend of comedy, kung fu, corny romance, special effects and rock videos, it's as electrically sleepless as the New York it's set against.
At the center is Leroy Green (Taimak), whose dedication to the martial arts has earned him the nickname "Bruce Lee-roy." His karate master tells him he has nothing more to teach him -- according to the yin-and-yang chart on the wall, he's reached "the last dragon." So Leroy ventures out into the world. He's accosted by Sho'Nuff (Julius J. Carry III), the "Shogun of Harlem," but Leroy won't fight him -- it's against his Buddhist principles. Only when he stumbles upon Laura Charles (Vanity), a singer and video club emcee, being mashed by four brutes do his principles waft away with the four winds.
The thugs have been sent by Eddie Arkadian (Christopher Murney), a mobster who wants Laura to feature the videos of his girlfriend, Angela (Faith Prince). Eddie can't bully Laura as long as Leroy is around -- slowly, they've fallen in love -- so he hires a crew of psychopaths to destroy him, with the secret weapon being none other than the Shogun of Harlem himself.
The story is crazily diffuse, but director Michael Schultz, whose career till now has been a disaster ("Greased Lightning," "Carbon Copy"), proves expert at handling it. The movie is perfectly balanced and as gracefully paced as a waltz. If the romance is flat (Vanity is gorgeous but mostly inert), it works anyway because the rest of the movie is all peaks.
The movie makes marvelous use of its New York locations, which give it a gritty urban feel. But its story and characters are fantastic -- like a dream or a morality play, the movie is rooted in psychological conflict. When Leroy clings to his childlike meekness, it's a way for him to avoid the problems of being a man. Through conflict, and Laura's love, Leroy learns how to be a man (which is to say a man of action) without losing the sweetness at his core.
"The Last Dragon" has a texture as rich and variegated as an English meadow. The movie is buoyed by parodies: with Angela's video, Schultz takes a sly swipe at Cyndi Lauper; and the relationship between Leroy and his master is a gentle sendup of "The Karate Kid." The script (by Louis Venosta) has a nutty, "anything goes" looseness (particularly a scene in which Arkadian "auditions" the psychopaths for his mob). At the heart of "The Last Dragon's" comedy is a playful mix-and-match of racial styles. Leroy is black, but he affects the kimono and broad-brimmed straw hat of a Chinese; he even talks like a Chinese who's learned English as a second language, and at the kung fu moviehouse, he eats his popcorn with chopsticks.
The hero's affectations lead to fun, "Breaking Away"-style conflicts with his family (his brother, played charmingly by a garrulous pint-sized rap artist named Leo O'Brien, calls him "chocolate-covered yellow peril" and "chow mein for brains"). Everyone in "The Last Dragon" gets into the act. Leroy's father is black, too, but he wants to be Italian (wearing a red-and-white striped chef's hat, he runs a pizzeria called Daddy Green's). And there is an exhilarating trio of Chinese (Henry Yuk, Michael G. Chin and Frederick Mao) who dance to their boom box in perfect Motown style and banter with each other in letter-perfect black patois. (As if the ethnic stew weren't rich enough, they work in a noodle factory called "Sum Dum Goy" -- a Chinese Yiddish pun.) In the world of "The Last Dragon," racial style isn't something you're born with -- it's something you choose.
The action is fast and well orchestrated (Taimak is as proficient at chop-socky as Chuck Norris, and more congenial). And the villainy comes in brush strokes as broad and vivid as van Gogh's. Murney's Arkadian is a head-to-toe ulcer; he's virtually boiling with sleaze ("I know how to handle show biz types," he says. "You wine 'em, you dine 'em, you let 'em order a la carte.").
But the triumph of "The Last Dragon" is Carry's Shogun. Preceded by his entourage, he imperiously demands, "Am I the prettiest?" (to which they respond, "Sho' nuff!"), and indeed he is -- he wears a bare-midriff satin suit, complete with ornate shoulder pads, that might have been designed for ladies' football in Las Vegas. Indignation has case-hardened his flaring eyebrows and bulging stare into a permanent sneer; he's the perfect bully, who takes the weakness of others as a personal affront. Long-limbed and physically impressive, with a samurai topknot that makes him seem even taller, Carry appears on the screen like some prehistoric bird -- he's really the last dragon. By the end, you know he's got to go, but you almost hate to see it.
Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 and contains violence and some profanity.