It’s 1985, Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury had debuted 13 years prior and 1978’s Game of Death, Lee’s last film, debuted only seven years prior. In that time, however, thanks to repository screenings at New York theaters, martial arts cinema thrived among audiences as they enjoyed films from studios like Shaw Brothers with their films The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) and Five Deadly Venoms (1978). Though these films and others were popular in Hong Kong, thanks to pirating and official dubs, a massive fandom formed in the U.S., with their influence in Black culture appearing in music, such as the very obvious Wu-Tang Clan who drew inspirations from 36th Chamber and Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973). Recognizing the passion existing between the two communities, it makes sense that Berry Gordy (notable record producer/executive, film/television producer, and songwriter) of The Wiz (1978) would seek to combine them, creating a film that’s as much a Brucesploitation film as it is a love letter to martial arts cinema via Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, directed by Michael Schultz (Cooley High). Now, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is releasing The Last Dragon on 4K UHD for the first time via a limited edition steelbook which includes legacy materials as well as a brand-new commentary track.
In New York City resides dedicated martial arts student Leroy Green (Taimak) who splits his time between mentoring his own students and taking lessons from his master (Thomas Ikeda). However, things begin to change for Leroy when two near simultaneous things happen: his master informs him that he’s reached the end of his training and must finish his journey alone and he intercedes in an attempted kidnapping, rescuing notable television VJ (video jockey) Laura Charles (Vanity) in the process. In the midst of figuring out how to walk his path and avoid additional problems from the on-going threats to Laura, he must also contend with returned fighter Sho’nuff (Julius Carry) who demands a confrontation in order to determine who the true local master is. Can Leroy maintain his path to become the Last Dragon and obtain the fabled Glow or will be brought down by the pettiness and greed of others?
With the film existing within the zeitgeist for the last 38 years, let’s first jump into the release itself.
The design on the front is very similar to poster art of prior releases, leaning heavily on the brown, gold, red, white, and black that runs through the film itself. On the back is an artist’s rendering of Leroy’s dragon badge (the symbol of his birth into martial arts and rebirth into a master) with the dragon in red, enshrined within a lattice of gold and red on a black background. On the inside is a clear plastic liner that runs the length of the inside so that we can see a still from the film, specifically a scene of Sho’nuff and his people delivering a beatdown at Leroy’s gym. On the inner left is where you will find the slip containing the digital code and instructions, while the right has holders for both the 4K UHD and Blu-ray discs. As with most steelbooks released now, there is a sheet containing the film summary, special features listing, and release information on the back that’s attached via a small adhesive that adheres to the front-top. All in all, the art and design work evokes the vibe of The Last Dragon even if it doesn’t offer anything new cosmetically, so it’s hard to say if the art will be a defining draw for fans of the film.
What may be a big draw, though, is the combined new presentation offers by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, the inclusion of the legacy features, and a brand-new commentary track labeled as “fan commentary.” According to the press notes, the 4K UHD with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos audio disc was created using a scan from the original camera negative. Unfortunately, unlike boutique dealers The Criterion Collection, Radiance Films, or Arrow Video, there’s no additional information regarding the processing of the negative into the new scan, where it was done, or who oversaw/approved it. Watching the film via my 43-inch LG 4K UHD television and my Dolby 5.1 surround, it’s safe to say that the sound and picture are of solid quality. This is not a film heavy in special effects and, with the exception of the things that ground The Last Dragon in the period, the visual look doesn’t appear dated except in certain instances like the presentation of the Debarge “Rhythm of the Night” video (even if the song remains a banger). There’s good color balance, nice depth of range, and a visual presentation that’s on par with many recent restorations. Even though the special effects are dated, even the glow that appears during the final fight between Leroy and Sho’nuff, comically though it may be, doesn’t feel out of line with the film as a whole or its period. In the same vein, the sound on the 5.1 presentation is clear, dialogue without disruption, and great balance all around.
As for the sole new feature, the “fan commentary” features comedian Amber Ruffin (Late Night with Seth Meyers) and The World Record Book of Racist Stories co-author Lacey Lamar who watch and offer their thoughts on the film. This is untraditional, to be sure, as many commentary tracks on new restorations or remasters will feature someone of specific note as it relates to the material, but, in this case, the two offer a specific perspective as it relates to this film and the Black community. The scene in the movie theater when Sho’nuff first appears is not just a set piece for giggles or to include Bruce Lee, there’s historical evidence demonstrating that jubilant and highly-engaged audiences congregated at screenings for martial arts films, indicating a clear recognition of the community that The Last Dragon is for. Therefore, having two people who have spoken and written about the Black experience makes a great deal of sense.
As for the film, it’s an enjoyable time that is as much a time capsule of the era in terms of music and fashion, but it also serves as a notable example of what happens when someone who *loves* a subject transposes it to a different community. Leroy, for instance, is known as “Bruce Leroy” to those who know him, a phrase which brings to mind Bruceploitation films like Enter the Game of Death (1978) with Bruce Le, They Call Him Bruce (1979) with Jack Lee and Rey Malonzo, or The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980) featuring Bruce Le, Dragon Lee, Bruce Lai, and Bruce Thai. Side bar: a new doc, Enter the Clones of Bruce, is screening during Fantastic Fest 2023, that explores this cinematic phenomenon. The point being that The Last Dragon replaces Taimak for Bruce Lee, except the film itself is specific to New York, rather than locations in China or surrounding locations, its sound, and its community. It just makes the opposition native to that community (the white producer in Christopher Murney’s Eddie Arkadian with a bloodlust, the local gang leader out for Leroy’s pride) and does it while riffing on things that are distinct to Hong Kong storytelling. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Sho’nuff proclaims himself a shogun, wears a costume that carries the essence of a shogun’s armor, and whose sunglasses feature the Japanese Rising Sun flag. Especially when Sho’nuff barges into Leroy’s dojo, he may as well have brought a sign that read “Sick Men of Asia” as he picked fights with Leroy’s disciples in an effort to get a fight going. This, among many other things, implies an awareness of the history of martial arts cinema, working in aspects so that knowledgeable fans can feel seen.
For many, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon is a definitive piece of Black cinema and this is a restoration that seems to honor that, even if it’s a little light in the on-disc materials. If you’re a fan of martial arts films and aren’t as aware of the connection between the two communities at play in the film, I recommend checking out the 2019 documentary Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks. It’s a fantastic starting point for those who either have no understanding of the role of martial arts cinema in U.S. culture or are looking to expand on what they already know. The information you learn makes even the smallest moments of The Last Dragon carry weight.
Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon 4K UHD Steelbook Special Features:
4K UHD Disc:
- Feature scanned from the original camera negative and presented in 4K resolution with Dolby Vision, approved by director Michael Schultz
- All-new Dolby Atmos audio + 5.1 + 2-channel surround
- *NEW* Fan Commentary with Comedian Amber Ruffin and Author Lacey Lamar
- Feature presented in high definition
- 5.1 audio
- Commentary with Director Michael Schultz
- “Return of the Dragon” Featurette
- Theatrical Trailer
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray steelbook and digital September 19th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Sony Pictures Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon webpage.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.