It may be that anyone under 30 who resolved to watch “The Last Dragon” for the first time would find it utterly bewildering, bordering on insane.
It is the sort of movie you get when you combine “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” “Pretty in Pink,” “The Karate Kid,” “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” and “Shaft.”
There’s “over-the-top” and there’s “The Last Dragon,” which found new tops to go over.
It is a movie of its time (1985) and it is a movie that has transcended its time: A 30th anniversary Blu-ray edition of the film came out last week.
“The Last Dragon” concerns the romantic, spiritual and martial-artistic maturation of young New York City kung fu expert named Leroy Green, a role assayed by a young New York City kung fu expert named Taimak (full name: Taimak Guarriello).
It pays tribute to grindhouse fare of the ‘70s — blaxploitation and Shaw Brothers-era martial arts films — but the outlook of the film is sunny; the violence, toothless; the racial mix, harmonious; the villains, absurd.
Leroy Green was Taimak’s first major acting role and it shows. But sometimes an actor’s inexperience works in a movie’s favor.
In 1985, the box office was ruled by tough guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, so the guilelessness of Leroy Green (aka Bruce Leroy) was refreshing.
Asked by phone if he was essentially playing himself in the film, Taimak said…not quite.
“That’s what they say. I didn’t know myself,” he recalled. “I analyze myself now and say, ‘Yeah.’” There was a side of me that was very innocent and there was a side of me that wasn’t. I grew up in New York City. There were sides of me that definitely weren’t innocent.”
Taimak started learning karate at the age of six, inspired by his father, who also trained. He said that when he saw his first snippet of Bruce Lee on television, he understood the standard to which he wanted to hold himself as a martial artist.
The early ‘80 was an exciting time to be a teenager in New York City, Taimak said.
“I grew up with friends going to all the discos,” he said. “It was an amazing time. Kids were dancing, partying and having a great time. And there was music.”
In the months before his friends informed him of an open audition for “The Last Dragon” at the Apollo Theater, Taimak had been considering college.
“I’d just won a kickboxing title,” he said. “But there was no money in being a professional kickboxer.”
Taimak admits that his first audition for the film was a disaster.
“I choked,” he said.
So he went off to spend some quality time with the script and then returned to ask for another chance.
It is difficult to imagine what it must have felt like for a young, Bruce Lee-obsessed man with no real acting experience — or significant acting aspirations, for that matter — to find himself the focal point of a major Hollywood martial arts movie.
“Going to the set every day was like walking into a comic book,” he said. “A great comic book. We were all just full of life. Everybody had something.”
The movie features a great hammy performance by the late Julius Carrey III (“The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.”), the screen debut of cult action star Ernie Reyes Jr, former Prince protege and pop singer Vanity at the height of her seductive powers, and small roles assayed by William H. Macy and Chazz Palminteri.
Taimak said he knew the film would be popular among martial arts buffs, but he had no idea it would have three-decade staying power.
“I didn’t think I was going to be talking about a year later,” he said, “let alone 30 years later.”
Taimak was offered a sequel long ago, but he turned it down.
“It wasn’t so much about what was in the contract,” he said. “It was about how I was getting treated. It’s not always what it’s cracked up to be.”
The lasting action stardom that Taimak envisioned for himself (and many others envisioned on his behalf) never materialized, but he nurses no grudges.
“It was a different lifetime and I am a different person,” he said. “I’m a trained actor now.”
“I am a grown man,” he added with a laugh. “I’m not a kid anymore.”
Taimak said it is a blessing to have people “love you for something you did.” The anniversary has given him a chance to sit with audiences at screenings and re-experience the film with them.
“It’s interesting because you see how much meat is in the movie,” he said. “It is a very positive movie for young people. It celebrate racial differences and it has wisdom layered through it about looking at oneself and finding that inner strength.
“There are a lot of great messages in the film,” Taimak said. “There are black characters who are not shooting people like they do in shoot-em-up movies. (Leroy Green) is a humble character who works hard and has a big heart. It resonates with all races.”
The anniversary has given Taimak the opportunity to meet numerous martial arts champions who have let him know that the movie was what inspired them to start training.
“So, of course, I feel really honored,” he said.
These days, Taimak is training with a Brazilian jiu jitsu champion named Marcello Garcia. He also mentors inner city children, writes screenplays (including a “Last Dragon” reboot) and auditions for acting roles.
He will soon star in the action comedy “Enter the Fist and the Golden Fleecing” alongside other ‘70s and ‘80s action stars including Michael Dudikoff, Reyes Jr. and Don “The Dragon” Wilson.
He said he has worked out a publishing deal for his autobiography. It is scheduled to come out next spring.
Had things worked out differently in Taimak’s career, a book like that might have more scandal, but less perspective.
Taimak, 51, said he’s genuinely grateful to be able to offer more wisdom than gossip.
“There’s only right now,” he said. “If you’re not walking around complete, then you’re putting that in your future. If it doesn’t serve me, I don’t keep it.
“Of course, after the film, there was a lot of expectation,” Taimak said. “But life is a search, a journey. It’s not about making money. We all fall into that because we enjoy things. But, at the end of the day, if you find yourself in a room full of dollar bills but no one to love you, what does it all mean?”