The Last Dragon: How to Remake a Martial Arts Classic in 6 Ultimate Steps
In which we breakdown how the UAMC would remake ‘The Last Dragon’ step-by-step.
Once a coworker of mine discovered that I was writing for the Ultimate Action Movie Club, he began incessantly badgering me about one of his favorite 80’s movies: The Last Dragon. “Dude, you HAVE to watch it,” he would demand. “It’s gotta be the most underrated action movie from that decade!”
I eventually broke down and watched it on a Sunday morning, if for no other reason than to shut him up! However, I must admit, it was actually a pretty good flick! I mean, it’s not the most ultimate action movie I can think of, but it does check off a lot of the right boxes: engaging fight scenes, an endearing protagonist, a satisfying climax, etc. If you haven’t seen the film, it is currently available to stream on Netflix, so give it a watch and let us know what you think in the comments!
Here’s the thought I kept having throughout the movie: could The Last Dragon be successfully remade for modern-day audiences? The 2000’s have been ripe with remakes of 80’s action movie (The Karate Kid, The A-Team, Red Dawn, Robocop, just to name a few), but very few of them were able to live up to the original. In all honesty, The Last Dragon has perhaps the best potential for a sufficient contemporary makeover of any 80’s action movie.
Here are 6 keys to that success:
1) Go Darker!
The Last Dragon has a very lighthearted tone, often rotating between kitschy jokes that more or less work and slapstick gags that are more silly than lasting. While this cheery vibe makes for a relatively enjoyable ride, it drastically decreases the stakes.
A scene with “Bruce” Leroy (Taimak), the film’s hero, goofily eating popcorn with chopsticks in a movie theater doesn’t exactly make the audience feel as though anyone in this movie is in any real danger. Furthermore, Leroy’s “nemesis,” Sho’ Nuff (Julius Carry), the “Shogun of Harlem,” is depicted as a chest-thumping, shutter-shade wearing meathead with a gang of senseless minions for 95% of the film, but the audience is expected to just accept it when he ends up being a legit fighter for the film’s finale.
In order to make the stakes real, the remake should take a page out of Batman’s book and go darker. You can keep in some of the humorous sight gags, but add some real gravitas, perhaps by having Sho’ Nuff kill off one of Leroy’s family members.
2) Roll High Quantity of Bad Guys into One Quality Villain
The Last Dragon has two main villains: Sho ‘Nuff, the Shogun of Harlem, and Eddie Arkadian (Christopher Murney), a businessman/mob boss. Sho is a man bent on fighting Leroy for…reasons? He does everything he can to force Leroy to fight him, even vandalizing Leroy’s family pizza store. Eddie wants to get his lady friend (girlfriend?) into the limelight as a singer, but when he can’t strong-arm a music show host into playing her music video, he decides to play dirty.
Although the two villains ultimately come together to attack Leroy and Laura, it would make for a much better conclusion if you just rolled both of the villains into one. That way, Leroy isn’t splitting his focus on two villains. I’d make Sho the main villain and lend some motivation as to why he hates Leroy.
3) A Modern Soundtrack
Music is an integral theme of 1985’s The Last Dragon. Laura Charles (Vanity), the lead’s love interest, is a singer/DJ. Eddie Arkadian’s entire motivation is to strong-arm Laura into playing his girlfriend’s music on the air.
At one point, a video of Bruce Lee’s fights is meshed together with a very 80’s instrumental while the two lead characters watch in awe. Music is such a large part of the film that it’s practically a character! For the remake, it is pivotal to keep that deep-rooted importance on music, but instead of the pop and R&B tracks of the original, utilize a fresh, modern influx of hip-hop.
This will make the film’s Harlem setting feel more authentic, as well as give the younger audiences something to relate to. Throw in an original jam courtesy of Drake or Kendrick Lamar, there’s no telling how much buzz this soundtrack could generate.
4) Tighten Up the Plot
At its core, the 1985 version of The Last Dragon was a story about a boy who realizes that greatness was inside him all along, finding the confidence to both defeat his enemies and get the girl. However, it was so watered down by random scenes and unnecessary subplots that it is easy to get distracted from the main message. For the remake, the plot needs to cut out all the weird, superfluous things going on in the original.
The subplot about Angela’s dream to become a popstar? Cut it. The weird, unaddressed murder fish? Bye-bye. Completely random full cuts of music videos?! No way! If you can hone in and focus on what this movie is actually about, you will have a much less muddled final product. I mean, how did Sho ’Nuff end up having “the glow” in the final fight scene? These key plot details need to be addressed or explained with some backstory.
5) A Fresh New Cast
I know you’re thinking it, but no, this is not the part where I submit Michael B. Jordan for the lead role of Leroy (unlike seemingly everyone, I don’t think he is the best thing since sliced bread).
That being said, in order for the remake to work, there does need to be a talented cast of up-and-comers on board. Leroy and Laura absolutely must have chemistry, and the lead villain absolutely must ooze evil. Just spit-balling here, but Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight, 12 Strong) would make a solid Leroy Green, and Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2, Geostorm) would make a perfect Laura Charles.
Hell, if you were somehow able to nab someone like Mahershala Ali to play the antagonist, you could probably even get away with keeping his name as Sho ‘Nuff, assuming he uses the nickname ironically.
6) Don’t Hide from the Demographic
With the massive successes of Black Panther and the new Creed movies, it can be safely assumed that whitewashing is becoming a thing of the past in Hollywood, which is a triumphant feat! In that regard, the original The Last Dragon was truly quite ahead of its time.
There weren’t too many movies made in 1985 with almost entirely African-American casts, but director Michael Schultz wasn’t afraid to go there. What’s more, the film doesn’t feel like it was made with one particular demographic in mind; people of all races can watch and sympathize with “Bruce” Leroy Green’s journey to become a karate master.
If the remake can replicate its predecessor’s ability to resonate with audiences of all backgrounds while focusing a story on an African-American in Harlem, it has the potential to be a box-office smash.
Although he wasn’t born until 1991, don’t assume this feisty millennial can’t tell Tom Selleck from Tom Cruise. Nick Hemming has long been an action movie aficionado, comic book enthusiast (ONLY Marvel; DC sucks!), and all-around wunderkind. When he isn’t watching movies, he is probably writing about them.
What do you think of our 6 steps to remaking The Last Dragon? Let us know in the comments or on our Facebook page!