'Kung Fu': Heathens Finally Raise Caine's Hackles

Posted: January 31, 1986

Despite all those Bruce Lee (or is it Bruce Li?) movies popping up like weeds on the UHF stations in town nowadays, there are many who insist that the true Golden Age of martial arts on TV ended 10 1/2 years ago. The apocalypse responsible for such cynicism was the cancellation of "Kung Fu" - the TV series in which the Old East met the Old West in the form of Kwai Chang Caine (played by David Carradine), a half-Asian, half-American vagrant who wandered through the lawless American frontier mumbling platitudes about non- violence and air-mailing foot sandwiches to anyone who disagreed with him.

Well, weep no more, fellow pilgrims. If that kind of cuisine still appeals to you - as a spectator, that is - these are the good, old days. At least tomorrow is, when CBS (Channel 10) airs "Kung Fu: The Movie" at 9 p.m.

Yes, Caine is back - looking as spacey as ever, talking as spacey as ever, even walking as spacey as ever - and this time David Carradine's not only playing him, the press release on my desk says he's co-producing him. There's only one problem with all this: What should have ended up as two hours worth of silly, nostalgic fun succeeded only halfway. "Kung Fu: The Movie" is merely silly.

Which isn't to suggest that "Fu" fails because it deviates from its original spirit. On the contrary, its blind devotion to that text, as if it were somehow sacred, is one reason the movie seems so lifeless. In fact, most of the basic plot of "Fu" is lifted in toto from the original TV series.

Remember how an accidental homicide committed by Caine back at the Shaolin temple in China - he killed the young man who murdered Caine's Master Po (the one who called him "little grasshopper") - had forced Caine into dusty exile in America in the first place? Well, the father of that murderous boy and a large zombie-like companion who thinks nothing of standing in the rain for hours have arrived in the U.S. seeking revenge. Perhaps to ward off

plagiarism charges, scriptwriter Durrell Royce Crays has thrown in a subplot that's part Watergate, part "Serpico": Law-enforcement officials, corrupted by powerful politicians, are protecting an opium-running operation in the Northern California town where Caine is living - and those who stand in their way, even if they're related to those opium runners, are quickly eliminated. That is, until Caine gets involved.

And, true to his Shaolin training, Caine at first tries to keep his involvement on a peaceful, verbal level. Which, as viewers of the old "Kung Fu" series fondly remember, means we're treated to more than our share of portentous, pithy remarks from "little grasshopper." Remarks like, "The most dangerous road to travel is the one called revenge." And "I know a thousand ways to take a life, not one to give it." And my personal favorite - "Those of us with twin roots become the strongest trees."

But, also true to his Shaolin training, Caine's smart enough to know that when his mouth fails, it's time to use his feet. And, to be sure, "Kung Fu: The Movie" ends up with a long and lavishly photographed (that is, lots of slow-mo) karate fight, one that, with all of its endless shots of flags waving and men on horseback, looks more like a medieval jousting tournament than any kick-boxing match I've ever seen. What's worse, David Carradine seems to have lost far too much flexibility to make a convincing black belt. Truth is, I had a tough time believing he left the battle in one piece.

In the acting department, David Carradine is his stoic, stolid - and strangely likeable - self as Caine. Can't say the script placed many demands on him, though - other than levitating off a jail-cell floor now and then. Keye Luke engenders similarly nostalgic feelings by reprising Master Po, Caine's benevolent and blind mentor, in lengthy flashbacks recalling the glorious days back in China. Mako (some actors don't need a last name) makes a cartoon out of the evil Manchu lord seeking revenge for his son's death.

Brandon Lee, who plays the Manchu lord's burly assistant, is memorable for one thing, and one thing only: His father's first name was Bruce. Yeah, that one.

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