The Little Dragons (1979)

The Good: Regardless of their names not appearing on the respective theatrical one sheets, The Little Dragons — as far as I am concerned — stars Joe Spinell (Gazzo from Rocky, Count Zarth Arn from Starcrash, Spider in Sorcerer, Frank Zito from Maniac, and Vinny from The Last Horror Film and, going deep: CBS Schoolbreak Special: Portrait of a Teenaged Shoplifter) and John Davis Chandler (whose career we overview in our review of one of his all-too-few leading roles, Drag Racer). Oh, and we have lovably gruffy everywhere-everyman character Charles Lane , who was a regular on 50’s TV’s Dennis the Menace and was in the box office classics The Music Man and It’s a Wonderful Life, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

The Bad: While this predates The Karate Kid by five years and is clearly not a ripoff, shame on the producers for re-releasing this on the duplex and drive-in circuit in 1984 to cash in . . . and leading everyone to believe it was a rip off.

And the Ugly (not in appearance, but career): Multiple Prime Time Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Ann Soutern is in this. How (career) hot was Ann? She had an eight-year consecutive run on CBS-TV with the comedy series Private Secretary and The Ann Southern Show. Luckily, Ann course-corrected with her final film, The Whales of August, starring alongside acting Dames Bette Davis and Lillian Gish, and Vincent Price, in which she earned her only Oscar nomination for “Best Supporting Actress.” (Whales is the film that resulted in Bette Davis passing on the lead role in Bigas Luna’s horror masterpiece, Anguish.)

The Wild and Willing: This took four screenwriters to concoct? The film we’re reviewing was the final draft? Based on four screenwriters and the pure awfulness adrift on screen, this was, most likely, being rewritten as cameras were rolling on the set. We’ll guess that Harvey Applebaum and Louis G. Altee (both who vanished from the business, and who the digital QWERTY warriors at the IMDb credit-list first) are the principals, with TV scribe Rudolph Borchert (in his only theatrical credit) taking a pass at it, and then, Alan Orsmby offering a doctoring assist. Now Borchert is a name you know, well, if you were an uber fan (moi) of CBS-TV’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker, as well as The Rockford Files, and CHiPs. And do we really have to tell you that Orsmby gave you Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Deranged? We just did.

And the Innocent: While we, the digital content managers and uber fans of all things drive-in at B&S About Movies realize all careers must start somewhere, it saddens us to know that this is a hair-growing-out-of-that-weird-mole blemish of Curtis Hanson’s directing career. While we haven’t reviewed the films (at least not yet), we hold Hanson in high regard amid the B&S cubicle farm, as he gave us his screenwriting debut with The Dunwich Horror (1970) (needs a remake), and followed up with the scuzzy Sweet Kill (1972), his directing debut (anything starring Tab Hunter is an instant heart emoji), and the even scuzzier-messy breast fest that is Evil Town (1977) (aka, God Damn Dr. Shagetz revamped). And while there was no post-Little Dragon redemption to be found in his directing the leading man debut of Tom Cruise in the-too-late-to-the-teensploitation-game with Losin’ It (1983) (our resident comedy purveyor, Robert Freese, needs to hit that one), Hanson eventually hit an A-List stride in the early-90s with The Bedroom Window, Bad Influence, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild, and L.A Confidential (for which he received an Oscar). He even made Eminem look competent in 8 Mile.

And the Shameful: Tony Bill, who produced this. The ex-Come Blow Your Horn actor Tony Bill with Frank Sinatra, who made his producing bones with the runaway hit The Sting starring Paul Newman; who made his directing bones with My Bodyguard starring Chris Makepeace (of The Last Chase); he who produced the incredible senior-citizens-as-bank-robbers romp Going in Style with George Burns and Art Carney. What happened, Tony? Did you not attend the dailies? And who decided to have the kids swear up a storm?

Oh, Joe, Joe, Joe. You deserve better than Outhouse slapstick and having your ass kicked by potty-mouthed brats.

So, what in the hell were they thinking? I’ll take a guess: “Hey, that movie The Bad News Bears did really well at the box office. Let’s do that, only let’s make them karate kids! And they’ll save a kidnapped girl from redneck kidnappers!”

Okay, sounds cute.

But then the kids had to have trash mouths. And engage in toilet humor. And the kidnapping is more graphic than it has to be. And a cute, harmless dog is stressed out. And they’re both threatened with death. In fact, Joe threatens — with his booted foot — to press back on a kid’s shoulder . . . and snap his neck.

Comedy. You just gotta believe.

If you made it through the clip above (in sans of a trailer), then you noticed these kids not only kick (and do way too many, unnecessary “hiiiii-yahs”), they drop S-bombs and other niceties all over the place. Remember how, after watching the Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner-inspired videos by Twister Sister, you figured they’re just a harmless, fun, party-metal band? Wrong. When parents took their kids to TS concerts, they were aghast at Dee Snider’s inability to speak a complete sentence without an S.F.M or M.F. or F-bomb. And The Little Dragons is the celluloid equivalent of a Twisted Sister concert. Parents took their kids to see this kiddie karate komedy and were shocked to hear these Karategi-attired tweens spewing S.H and S-bombs two and three at a clip. Of course, not many parents were shocked and embarrassed that they took their kids because, courtesy of bad reviews and worse word of mouth, no one saw The Little Dragons — not pre-or-post Karate Kid. But, when it hit video shelves via Family Home Entertainment in the 80s, the company had the good sense to market it as a children’s title — which was its original intent — and delete the swearing (and taking it out didn’t help, because, in a bit of Asian karate flick irony: the dubbing/dialog edits don’t match the lips).

Now, if I recall, while the The Bad News Bears kids were a bit saucy, the film didn’t have children being kidnapped by slobbering goons who stuff the family dog in burlap sack. And when the kidnapping-for-ransom fails, they’re going to dump the kid and the dog down a hole inside a cave. Yes. This is supposed to be funny. Not even Spinell and Chandler, with their years of thespin’ skills, can make this work.

Comedy. You just gotta believe.

Just wow, Curtis. As actress Nora Gaye’s actress-character in duBeat-e-o asked Ray Sharkey’s duBeat-e-o: “You made this?” (Since we mentioned Curtis Hanson’s and Alan Ormsby’s early horror beginnings: Marc Sheffler, who starred in Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, wrote duBeat-e-o.)

The Little Dragons is apparently coveted in Australia, as it stars beloved TV and film child actor and musician Sally Boyden as the young kidnap victim, Carol Forbinger. As with Rick Springfield before her (he was a huge deal down under — and a highly-regarded guitarist — with his band, Zoot), Boyden came to America to get a singing career off the ground, and, like Springfield, took up acting to pay the bills. She made her first American TV appearance as a recurring friend of the kids on The Waltons and Lassie: A New Beginning. Meanwhile, back down under, before making her U.S. film debut in The Little Dragons, she was the lead in two, hit teen comedies: Barnaby and Me (a talking Koala!) and Dead Man’s Float (teens foil drug smugglers), and a series, Come Midnight Monday. And that was that: no more American TV series or films for Sally Boyden. (And after being a kidnap victim stuffed in a burlap sack with a dog by two redneck (implied) child-killers, can you blame her?) These days, Sally is a 50-something music teacher London, after her fruitful career recording several albums and touring the world with Duran Duran. (She reflects on her life in this 2015 interview; you can listen to music from her two albums on You Tube.)

Tiger Beat! 16! Leif Garrett! Shawn Cassidy! Donnie and Marie Osmond!

If you must have The Little Dragons in your collection, Mill Creek makes it available as part of their Martial Arts 50-Film Pack under its post-Karate Kid repack title of Karate Kids, USA. (We haven’t reviewed that set, yet, but I am sure we will, right Sam?) We can’t attest as to the digitized quality of the Mill Creek reissue, but any grey-market DVDs we’ve seen of it — under either title — are a hazy, VHS washout mess. You can watch The Little Dragons for free — don’t you dare pay a dime for it — on You Tube — as I assure you, there are infinitely 49 better movies to be enjoyed.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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