Sunday, 5 August 2012

Dragon By Name...

Dragons are majestic creatures (or would be, if there were any). However, the word itself is one of the most misused in motion picture history. I'd wager there are more movies with "dragon" on the title that don't feature any dragons whatsover, than there are those that do. I wrote about actual Dragon movies a while ago, and it seemed to go down well with the audience. That's also why The Last Movieblog is now ready to take a look at four of false advertisement Dragon-movies and tell what the Dragon in the title is supposed to symbolize.

The Last Dragon (1985)
Director: Michael Schultz

The nickname for Bruce Lee was "The Dragon", which is why his two movies were titled "Enter The Dragon" and "Way of The Dragon". Because of the classic status of these two so it's no wonder a significant part of Dragon-titled movies are kung fu flicks, made to cash in the impression. One of the weirdest ones (that was not Bruceploitation per se, at least) of them was this kung fu parody, produced by Motown records to sell some pop hits to the 80's youth. The premise is by far not the only odd choice in this cheesefest.

Say what?! Cheesefest?

The protagonist, "Bruce" Leroy Green (Taimak), is The Last Dragon. This in the sense that he is the last student of kung fu that still trusts to chivalry and being pure of heart, living in the notoriously seedy New York area of Harlem. This infuriates the local gang boss, Sho'Nuff (Julius Carry), who wants to challenge Leroy to a fight to the death. But Leroy escapes his clutches again and again, refusing to fight for no good reason. The would-be Bruce Lee also attempts to reach the final level of martial arts mastery, "the glow", yet is unsure how to reach it. But then he happens to save a famous VJ and aspiring pop star Laura Charles (Vanity) from thugs sent by greedy record mogul Eddie Arkadian (Christopher Murney). The pair begins to fall for each other. But can even Laura break through the tough shell of the stoic hero?

The film is at the same time one big pop video, and a parody of such. The odd style choices bring to mind the starlet Vanity's then-boyfriend Prince's fims and music video stylings. But Prince rarely seemed to be able to have as much fun in his own videos. The goofy fashions, the ridiculous dialogue, the colorful cast of characters... But overall, the film is also a bit messy, as it can't really decide on whether it wants to be a kung-fu adventure, a pop love story, or a parody of both. The jokes are from time to time oddly weak. There's also the matter of a super-annoying kid brother of Leroy's, Richie (Leo O'Brien). He belittles Leroy all the time, while thinking he's a street-savvy big-time ladies' man. Much of the plot hinges on his desire to get in Laura Charles' panties.

"I'm so ashamed at you right now."
Equally odd character is Arkadian's girlfriend, Angela Viracco (Faith Prince), a screechy bimbo whose music videos, set to replace Laura's from the TV, are hilariously terrible. She seems oblivious from all that goes on around her. But the film's biggest asset, one could almost say savior, is Carry's Big Bad, The self-appointed Shogun of Harlem. Carry chews the scenery with every scene he's in, dicking around in a movie theatre, killing non-chalantly burly attackers, and constantly seething with barely contained fury and rage, and cackling maniacally from time to time. He also gets all the best lines:
"Kiss my Converse!"

Maybe the time of dragons has passed and the time of mutant alligators has come.


Kiss of the Dragon 
Director: Chris Nahon

After Bruce Lee, "Dragon" in the movie title evolved into a word that generally means "Chinese", often with kung fu skills. This movie is also titled thus, because it features a romance between Jet Li's Chinese police officer and a caucasian woman, played by Bridget Fonda. As Jet Li's Hollywood films tend to be, it is sort of entertaining, yet contains little to nothing so special that would make the film memorable. I know I've seen this film multiple times, yet it's hard to remember anything from it without resorting to doublechecking, courtesy of IMDb.

The Chinese intelligence officer Liu Jian (Li) arrives to Paris to capture a notorious drug lord Mr. Big (Ric Young). But it turns out the Paris police force's Inspector Richard (Tchéky Karyo) has been working with the Triad drug trafficers. Now he attempts to capture the entire drug operation by killing Big, and blaming it on Liu. But Liu escapes with his life, and runs into Jessica (Fonda), one of the prostitutes Richard is also pimping. Jessica's daughter is kept by the gangsters to ensure her loyalty to Richard. So, the pair starts to plan a way to strike back and to get Jessica and her daughter free.

This is one of those Luc Besson-penned action movies, and it really shows. He is quite unrelentless in depicting Paris, since in his films they are always packed with higly armed gangsters at every corner. The parisian police are unwilling to stop the violent crimewaves, but rather encourage it by taking a lot of illegal activities of their own. Talk about an American tourist anxiety movie! Besson seems to want to cut down the flock of US tourists flowing into his home town. Besson is also quite shameless in repeating some of his own past glories for profit. The main bad guy here, Karyo's rotten-to-the-core cop Inspector is such a big clone of Léon's Stansfield that Karyo should send Gary Oldman a royalty check from his performance.

Jet Li's high-kicking stunts are fun to behold, and some daring escapes make this a worthy contender for a Friday night movie with the Boys. But at the same time, everything is paper-thin and clichéd. Like said, this is a 13-in-a-dozen bargain bin film, even though the production values are surprisingly high. There's absolutely nothing special about it.

★★ 1/2
The Year of the Dragon (1985)
Director: Michael Cimino

The director Michael Cimino has had to deal with his share of hardships during his long career. One of the biggest was the utter flop of his epic Heaven's Gate (1980). He returned with this hard-boiled crime/action story dealing with the Chinese mafia, the Triads. The end result is a true mixed bag. Cimino does have a string of tropes that make one figure he might have caused some of his problems by his own relentnessness for the content of his films.

The decorated cop, detective Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) is given a new assignment to keep peace at Chinatown, as a punishment for constantly breaking police procedures. White is a former Vietnam vet, which has caused him to hate all Asians with a passion. At the same time White's marriage is crumbling, since he only thinks about his work. But White won't have it easy, since Joey Tai (John Lone) is named the Head of the Triads. Tai is tough and ruthless, and ready to use quite a lot of the ol' ultra violence to reach his goals.

While trying to catch Tai red-handed and to stop all the blood-shed, White also makes aquaitance with an Asian-American reporter Tracy Tzu (Ariane). A fierce love-hate relationship starts. Tzu is the only major Asian character in the film portrayed in any way in a positive light. All others are either savage, violent, uncompromizing and all-around evil, or feeble victims, whether Chinese or Vietnamese. Cimino has had racial issues in all of his films, and they are not uncommon for screenwriter Oliver Stone, either, himself a Vietnam vet like White. And Tzu is a problematic character in her own right, an alluring would-be femme fatale, who is likely to hop in the sack with any man who roughs her up a bit. Thus, she exists in the film merely to be a rug for White to walk all over through this picture.

And in a pervy, voyeuristic fashion. Yet she insists on showing him her lady parts when answering the door.
The strength of the movie lies in the accurate setting, smart cinematography and big, big, big scenes! A lot of money has been used for the sets and Cimino shows this by setting his camera to any corner he can. When Cimino opens the flood gates, he can deliver gut-wrenchingly violent, chaotic and mind-bogglingly big action. And the impact is grown that they often come totally unexpected. The big shootout at a Chinese restaurant is only in the beginning of this film, and hundreds of people lose their lives in that alone. As the film goes on, the violence gets more and more intimate, yet still nasty and (deliberately) hard to watch.

Like many of Cimino's films, this one also starts up slowly, and by the end develops into a real sacrifice story for a misunderstood hero. You can see Christopher Nolan has been watching a lot of his films before making The Dark Knight Rises. Of course, in this case it's a bit problematic that the suffering Christ-figure is not only a huge racist, he's a big asshole from whatever angle one looks at it. Others are merely vehicles for him, and he doesn't respect neither authority nor common human rights. Rourke can play this kind of a conflicted character in his sleep. The problem is that while it's at times fun to watch him pigging it up, it's hard to really give oneself into a hero's journey when it's obvious that White refuses to develop as a character.


The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Director: David Fincher

This thriller is an adaptation of Stieg Larsson's famed detective novel, which originally was written as Män, som hatar kvinnor, "The Men Who Hate Women". Since the book introduces the hard-luck heroine Lisbeth Salander, who steals the spotlight from the protagonist Mikael Blomqvist, the translations seem to underline the strong female lead. This is a small, and weak-looking girl who will strike back like a tiger, if bothered or attacked.

Fincher improves upon the hugely overrated and uneven novel by spades. Yet it is very clear that this steamlined Hollywood thriller is only an in-between project to pay the bills and save some money for a truly inspiring project for him. But the film didn't perform as expected at the box office, most likely because cinema-goers have already had enough of Stieg Larsson's novels and couldn't be arsed to see another adaptation. I'm told the Swedish TV mini-series cut-into-a-movie is also a faithful adaptation, if not as flashy and cinematic.

The famed Swedish economy reporter Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) loses a court case against a seedy billionaire, and must withdraw from public life. He is hired by an oldindustrial patriarch Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to dig his family's dark and dirty past. To the outside Blomqvist tells he's writing a biography, when in actuality he's attempting to solve the 50-year-old disappearance of Henrik's granddaughter. Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) works as an information specialist at a computer security company. She is the best at what she does, since she's in actuality a world-class hacker. When digging for Blomqvist's records, she herself becomes interested in his case. yet she also has other problems to deal with, as she's deemed mentally challenged by court order and must check in with a guardian, the misogynist Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg) who's looking for a bit of young ass and not getting caught. But as he will see, Lisbeth is more than capable of defending herself.

Yes, they even meet at one point, nearing the end.

The film opens with a sequence with Atticus Finch's and Trent Reznor's cover of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song, while oily figures form symbols of the film's themes. It is fast-cut and jaw-droppingly awesome. It's also apt since it also gives an unrelenting feel of dread that surrounds the gloomy, melancholy cinematography of modern-day Sweden. The film follows suit, with particularly Larsson's forever-dragging opening and closing glossed over as quickly as possible. The only flaw is that Fincher also limits the time where the actual murder investigation takes place, which is the most interesting part of the book. Sure, it is a bit difficult to get across, cinematically, but Fincher has done it before, excellently, in his Zodiac.

Fincher doesn't just run through the book, however. He also gives suitably time to get to know it's main players. Craig is surprisingly good as an anti-Bond, a man whose more common and likely to think his way through than to go blasting. But the real star-making turn of the film belongs to Rooney Mara, who brings some vunerablity and sympathy to the hard-boiled cover of Salander. Critics have noted she has softened the heroine too much. Yet performing her as a straight-up sociopath as in the novel, would make it harder to root for her, even if she has to go through hell. Another thing criticized often is a certain rape scene. I think Fincher attempts to emphasize more of the humiliation connected to such a vile act, than the physical pain. It is not easy to look at, yet also not tastelessly explicit. As for suspense, Fincher also knows how to tighten the screws enough to make the ordeal exciting and anxious. It is truly a work of the modern master of suspense. Not even near his best, but it'll do more than well.

★★★ 1/2


  1. Interesting topic for an article, its well written and kudos for including The Last Dragon. The Last Dragon is a classic. Yes it's cheesy, but it is cheesy on purpose. If you can see past the cheese you'll find there is a lot going on here. It is a classic good vs evil story with character, romance, comedy, spirituality mixed in with homages to Blaxploitation, classic KungFu movies and Bruce Lee. This movie has a huge cult following for a reason. At least you recognized the Bad Assness of Sho'nuff. Otherwise your review can 'Kiss My Converse' ;)


  2. I do recognize the film's attempt to pay homage to 70's action films, blaxploitation and kung fu. If I wasn't actually "glowing" in my review (har, har), I have to say I do like the movie. The intentional "cheesiness" you refer to is an actual asset for the film in my book. It's just that I feel it isn't consistent in its content and drags a bit at parts. But hey, no one ever said my way is the only way to appreciate movies, and it's quite clear why The Last Dragon has a cult following.



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