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Two stories told parallel to each other: One shows Kwai Chang Caine
(played as a boy by Radames Pera, as a teen by Keith Carradine, as a
grown-up by David Carradine) growing up in the Shaolin temple, learning
all sorts of ... well, of Oriental stuff (the film is actually a bit hazy
about that). Eventually, Caine makes it to Shaolin-priesthood, and
everything should be great, until Caine's favourite teacher, blind Master
Po (Keye Luke) is killed by some Imperial guards which makes Caine lose
his cool and kill the emperor's nephew.
Story number two sees Caine, who
has fled from China, trying to make it in the USA, working at
railroad-construction - but he has a greedy boss, Dillon (Barry Sullivan),
who has the tracks lead right through some sandstorm formation that holds
numerous pockets of gas that eventually explode and kill many a (Chinese)
worker. Almost everybody wants to rebel, but Caine, who would have the
skills to lead them, calms them down, as he is at heart a pacifist. Then
though Dillon learns Caine is actually a wanted man, and he has him tied
up and hopes to soon have him collected and collect a reward. Caine
escapes though, and only when Dillon takes one of his friends, old man Han
Fei (Benson Fong) hostage does he return into custody. When Dillon has Han
Fei shot though, nothing can stop Caine anymore and he takes care of all
of Dillon's men before taking him captive. Enter a Shaolin monk turned
bounty hunter who tries to defeat him in a fight amd then drag him back to
China - but Caine defeats him instead.
A movie conbining
elements of Eastern philosophy and the Western movie genre could be great
entertainment - but no matter how popular this TV-movie (and the series
that followed) was, great entertainment it was not: The Eastern philosophy
in the film seems to be derived mainly from fortune cookies, with a few
vows of non-violence according to Mahatma Gandhi thrown in, vows the
character Caine doesn't always stick to, though. On top of that, the
martial arts shown here are all pathetic to non-existant, and especially
David Carradine is anything but a martial artist.
Speaking of Carradine:
There has been much discussion about having a Caucasian actor play an
Asian (or at least part-Asian) character, and of course, no matter how you
see it, that's pure Hollywood-racism - but that said, Carradine gives a
very ok performance, and really seems to have sunk his teeth into Caine.
There are plenty of rumours about that the film (and subsequent series)
was to have starred later Chinese superstar Bruce Lee, that he actually
developed the series himself and the idea was stolen from him ... but
there is no actual proof for this, so maybe this is just one of these
Hollywood legends that just came into existence because they sounded good
and thus also refuse to go away.
In all though, Kung Fu might not
be a good Western or Eastern (though to be fair, in the early 1970's,
Western audiences were pretty much oblivious of martial arts movies, that
only came a little later), it is however groundbreaking concerning the
fact that it was the first scripted TV show to deal with Eastern
philosophy (however superficially) - which makes the choice of a Caucasian
for the lead extra hard to understand, but then again, that's Hollywood
for you, right? On top of that, seeing the film today from a nostalgic
point of view makes it almost worthwhile - but probably only if you've
seen the series as a kid/youngster.