The Last Dragon is the last of a lot of things. In 1985, Michael Shultz' film starring martial artist Taimak and Prince protégé Vanity was a late-entry into both the kung fu film lineage and the blaxploitation genre, which arguably dates to Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song more than a decade earlier. But going last has its benefits, allowing the The Last Dragon to riff off the tropes of both, most literally in a fight scene in a Harlem movie theater showing a Bruce Lee movie. Perhaps as a result, the tale of Bruce Leroy (Taimak) and his quest to attain the highest level of fighting power, "the glow" — a radiating aura surrounding his body — still has quite a glow about it.
With the film now celebrating its 30th anniversary in a series of screenings across the country, SFist spoke to superfan and Bay Area comedian W. Kamau Bell, who hosts a one-night screening of The Last Dragon with Taimak next Friday at the Roxie.
"When I was 13 years old there was no movie that hit me in my cinematic G-spot as hard as [this one]," Bell has written. "As a lover of Bruce Lee, I wanted to be like him. But once I saw The Last Dragon I wanted to straight up BE Taimak AKA Leroy Green AKA Bruce Leroy."
For his part, Taimak, who also spoke to SFist, says that he's loving the love for the film — even from first timers. "A lot of people have brought people who've never seen the movie before, a lot of parents and relatives are showing kids or siblings the movie, and it definitely translates," he says. These days, "Hollywood doesn't put a lot of time into the art of martial arts films," says Taimak. "It is what it is." You know, he really is the last of something — and yes, he's keeping it up. You can follow Taimak on Instagram (this I highly recommend) or check out his website for his latest. I asked if he's still practicing martial arts — which was stupid. "I don't understand the question," he says. "It's a lifestyle."
SFist: How did you first encounter The Last Dragon?
W. Kamau Bell: I'm pretty sure I was in the video store looking for hidden gems when I saw the box. The cover is this young ripped black dude, and it said The Last Dragon, so it was like clearly an allusion to Bruce Lee. In 1985 I was 12, and I felt like I was the only Bruce Lee fan left in the world. It's way before the Internet — I was taking, like, karate classes, at the junior college and the community center. So that movie comes along, and I'm like "that's me on screen!" I remember taking it home and watching it by myself and being like "this everything I've ever wanted in my life."
SFist: You did karate! Did you, um, ever achieve **the glow**?
Bell: Well, I started doing standup comedy. I guess you could say I got the standup glow now.
SFist: So, in retrospect why do you think this movie hits so hard?
Bell: There's PhD level analysis of The Last Dragon to be done. It has all this really core black culture combined with the fact that every black kid went through a kung fu phase. That's a little superhero-y, [that phase], it's also about, this is a core thing, as a black kid growing up in America you need to defend yourself. It plays right into the "Up, up up you mighty race," stuff, it plays right into the "Black and Proud" stuff. And also a lot of cities had the black theater that people would go — to those theaters are gone now — and there was a point before cable that they'd do blackbelt Sunday, or kung fu Sunday, and show lots of Bruce Lee films.
SFist: Like the theater in The Last Dragon does.
Bell: Yeah, the movie, it's a fairy tale, but it takes place in New York City. That movie theater is a hard, scary looking place. There's a fight, a boom box gets broken, it actually exists in a very hard urban environment. But, according to the movie, you train hard enough, and you master the glow, you can catch bullets in your teeth.
SFist: Speaking of theaters: This anniversary screening is happening in a very theatrical place. It's also happening at a small theater on the same night a lot of big theaters are gonna be showing the new Star Wars, right?
Bell: Every theater in the country gets Star Wars, but only San Francisco, only the Mission, gets Taimak. That's what's up.
At some point, if you want cool places in the Bay Area, then support them... The Roxie, it's the theater where people would have been fighting it out and watching Bruce Lee in The Last Dragon. And if I can help them out, give them a good night, that's great. If you don't support this, you just get Star Wars.
SFist: Last thing: Vanity lives in the Bay Area, but, well, she's not Vanity anymore.
Bell: She lives in Fremont, she's minister now I think. Yeah, some people are like, you should invite her! Well. We'll save a seat, she can come. She's invited.
Friday, December 18th, The Roxie presents THE LAST DRAGON on 35mm with Taimak in attendance. 7 p.m. VIP meet-and-greet, 8:25 p.m. intro and 8:30 screening.via the Roxie