As an old guy, I was a fan of the TV series Kung Fu when it was in first run. From 1972–75, I was enthralled with the adventures of David Carradine’s fugitive Shaolin Monk as he traversed the American West, meeting with all variety of friend and foe, confronting bigotry and oppression at every turn. He changes minds and bone structure with his thoughtful philosophy and fists of fury.
So it was with great trepidation that I approached the made-for-TV movie Kung Fu, made 11 years after the series ended, recently released through Warner’s Archive Collection. An incentive to hit “play” is the inclusion of a young Brandon Lee (son of Bruce Lee, who was originally supposed to play the series’ lead, Kwai Chang Caine). Sadly, my trepidation was warranted. Beyond the curiosity factor for diehard fans, this is one that should’ve remained buried in the vaults.
It’s 1865, and in the Chinese ghetto of a Western town, a raving fanatic gains access to a Chinese laundry wherein lies an Opium den. Posing as someone in need of the poppy, he is actually trying to rid the world of Opium. Next thing we know, he turns up dead of an apparent overdose. His widow, however, knowing her husband’s anti-drug crusade, believes foul play. Enter Caine, living in an attic, rousted by the sheriff who needs his help to investigate. The Sheriff becomes suspicious as well, but his deep-seated prejudice against the Chinese means he’s slow to act.
Simultaneously, a mysterious “Oriental” with frighteningly long talons and a hypnotic spinning medallion appears with his valet who unquestioningly follows his master’s murderous commands (Lee).
For a TV movie, the story becomes much more convoluted than necessary, with several subplots that disappear regarding the locals’ trying to run the Chinese out, and an older Chinese worker who dies for unknown reasons, and the family he leaves behind.
The focus, as it should be, though, is seeing the late Brandon Lee squaring off against David Carradine, which doesn’t deliver much either. My one criticism of the series was that the kung fu was mostly shot in slo-mo; intended to make the fights seem more powerful, but ultimately amounted to lumbering dinosaur-like stunt men going carefully through the paces. So, too, are the fight sequences shot and choreographed here. Even when Lee is engaged in battle with other stuntmen, he doesn’t exhibit much of the lightning skills he demonstrated in Rapid Fire or The Crow.
Caine strikes several kung fu “style” poses, but the old fire just isn’t there. In fact, it took the skill of Quentin Tarantino almost 20 years later to harness the nebulous talents of David Carradine and offer up a more apt tribute to the series with Kill Bill: Vol. 2.
There are some flashback scenes, as were characteristic of the series, to Caine’s days as a Monk, under Master Po that more than anything, remind you how good the original series was.
The final showdown, strangely, takes place at what looks like a manicured golf course, giving the proceedings just the right final slice of cheese.
Probably what makes the whole thing feel so disconnected from the series, besides the direction and script, is the missing iconic theme song. The producers obviously had the rights to the character and the series as the flashbacks prove, so why not the music? A John Carpenter-esque knock off score by 1970-80’s omnipresent composer Lalo Schiffrin only emphasizes the absence of this important element.
David Carradine was famous for his excesses and his financial troubles, so it’s no surprise he did this sad substitute for a follow-up, but why someone like Martin Landau in a three-scene throwaway, unless he, too, lost a bet?
The DVD transfer is rather muddy, high in contrast with many of the darker scenes hard to make-out, a result of a negative that was probably in disrepair. And as usual, the disc is so bare bones there’s not even a scene selection option so you can get the hell out of dodge quicker. Once you hit “play,” you’re in for the long haul. Even its short 93 minute running time feels interminable.
I guess the real question, “Chinese Philosophy”-style is, “If a bad movie is made from a great series, and no one sees it, does it make a sound?”
Kung Fu: The Movie is available as a manufacture on demand DVD (MOD) through Warner Archive