If No Retreat, No Surrender was emblematic of ridiculous 1980s kung fu cinema, City Dragon is the same for 90s kung fu fare. It's the passion project of a few mates, working with no money and a cheap camera, telling a story they were clearly eager about. But how does this translate on the big screen?...
Ray is a real player, training in the gym all day and going out and partying all night with his buddies. One day he meets the beautiful Tina, and instantly sparks fly, and he becomes a one-woman guy. Tina is in an abusive relationship, but leaves it with the help of Ray, who manages to fight off the possessive and violent John, who skulks off and gets himself arrested after taking it out on a coworker. Months pass, and the relationship deepens, but Ray must also overcome other difficulties if he and Tina are to stay together...
City Dragon is a real bottom-of-the-barrel picture in terms of budget and visual quality, and it does suffer because of this, but also entertains like nothing else! It's a gloriously dated time capsule of the 90s hip-hop culture, shot on video with actors who'd probably never been in a film before (and certainly never were since), with more cheesiness that you can poke a stick at. But the film also has a charming sincerity that makes it a load of fun to watch, beyond just laughing at its faults (of which there are many!).
City Dragon is a hip-hop themed urban martial arts film, and stars the amazingly-named MC Kung Fu in the role of his career. He makes up spur-of-the-moment rhymes, which somehow charm the pants off ladies despite being the cheesiest things imaginable. But then again, confidence is a hell of a superpower, and the chicks do dig creative types, even if they have a few screws loose.
The movie has an irreverent and lighthearted tone, all about these bros who act like they're the coolest thing since sliced bread, but are really incredibly dorky. Iit's doubtful this was intentional, but that's how it goes. It's amusing seeing these tough guys playing such gangsta games as frisbee (hey, don't knock it!).
The dialogue is amusing all round, most of it unintentionally, but some earning a genuine chuckle. There are 'zingers' like "Sugar, you're so sweet, diabetes couldn't stop me from overdosing on you."
"My my my, sweet apple pie. Ain't you got a round backstack on your back!"
"Why you dissin' me when you should be kissin' me?"
"I'm a white nigga, a brotha dipped in vanilla!"
And "You mess with a homeboy, he's ghost, he's toast!".
However, it's not the low budget, or the cheesy hip-hop aesthetic that makes City Dragon truly strange. Those all help, but the really bizarre thing about this film is how a lot of it isn't even a martial arts film, but a romantic drama all about domestic abuse! These moments are surprising in the first act, and do give the movie perhaps a bit too much seriousness that it could handle, but it's a great message, and impressive for such a film!
It's not all positive though. While this is a brave subject matter to tackle, it kinda drags the rest of the movie down. It's hard to enjoy a silly kung fu flick when every few minutes we get a serious moment about spousal abuse. The second half is really where this all comes to the forefront, and City Dragon becomes a full-on drama! The characters are brooding all the time, having miserable lives, and the growing resentment as Ray begins to hate his life makes for a surprisingly depressing watch! Is this the same movie that starred MC Kung Fu, and promised goofy rap-fu shenanigans? I wanna watch him beat up bad guys, not get sexually harassed by a bad boss!
Everything finally comes together in a climax that's all a bit disappointing really. The film has just stopped being fun, and the ending is kinda abrupt.
The acting in City Dragon is often hilariously cheesy or amateur, but alright in places. Stan Derain (alias MC Kung Fu) is a decent lead, and has some charisma, but where he struggles is in more serious moments. He handles some emotional scenes well, but he's bad at anger-enunciating.
The fights here are pretty goofy, but fun, and decently choreographed, although how they happen is often incredibly random, and the presence of a 'baby' in the final battle does pose some problems. For all his silliness, Derain looks genuinely fit, which helps justify his cred as a karate practitioner. My only complaint is that there aren't enough of them. Perhaps the best was when some punks come into Ray's gym and do the unforgiveable-Insult Bruce Lee! Go get 'em, man!
The direction is by co-star Philthy Phil Phillips, whose name is spelt at least 4 different ways during the credits! He certainly is a multitasker, and he seems to do a good job at pointing the camera. Out of its many shortcomings, City Dragon is at least filmed well. Incredibly goofy, but reasonably effective.
The editing is incredibly abrupt, with scenes beginning way too quickly, with no real sense of pacing. The sound work is a little mixed at times too, and certainly low-tech. It seems the crew didn't know how to overlay dialogue over a scene, so when we hear Ray's voice as his conquest reads a letter, Derain is clearly right offscreen reading it out in person.
Overall, City Dragon is a movie you've gotta see to believe. It is hands down the most ridiculous martial arts film from the 90s, and that's saying a lot! It's worth checking out if you're a fan of the ludicrous, although be warned that the movie does disappoint even on those terms much of the time...