Warner Bros. // 1974 // 1167 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // April 13th, 2005
"That is not a puzzle, Grasshopper. It is only something you do not yet understand."
Here's something that all fans of classic '70s television understand: Kung Fu was an unexpected hit that was most likely responsible for America's fascination with martial-arts action. Young and old alike tuned in religiously each week to be awestruck at the incredible self-control juxtaposed with the jaw-dropping defensive skills of a wandering Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine. After the first season performed so well in 1972 on ABC, the adventures of Caine continued for another season, presented quite capably here in Kung Fu -- The Complete Second Season.
Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine, Death Race 2000) is a Shaolin monk, half Chinese and half American, left to wander the Old West of 1872. Although a man of peace and seeking perpetual enlightenment -- as his Eastern training has guided him -- Caine is a man on the run. In an uncharacteristic act of revenge for the shooting of his Master Po (Keye Luke), Caine kills the Emperor's scheming nephew and must flee his native China. With a $10,000 bounty offered by the Emperor for his capture, the renegade priest now wanders the dusty plains of the American West, where his travels lead him into encounters with the best and the worst of human nature. As he entertains honest men and women while thwarting the affronts of all manner of crooks, thieves, and oppressors, Caine recalls the teachings of Master Po, he who helped the then young boy grow into an enlightened man.
Initial thoughts of Kung Fu conjure notions of a bunch of roundhouse kicks, sweeps, and tiger-and-crane defensive stances. Actually, a revisit to the show some three decades later reveals it was less about the martial arts and more a study of conflict and human compassion. Caine wants nothing tangible of others and seeks no more than a clear understanding of his day-to-day experiences. Essentially, he acts as a pawn of sorts in these hour-long dramas, an unwitting catalyst for the reactions and reflections of those whom he encounters. Whether he's passively exposing the wanton greed of a former slave or tenderly rebuffing the misplaced affections of a Chinese daughter, Caine wanders in and out of people's lives, leaving them to wonder, in the end, if it was an angel in disguise they have just entertained. We, the viewers, are routinely left with a sense of heightened perception and a feeling of calm -- not bad for a weekly TV show.
In the early '70s, it seemed American audiences were desperately in need of understanding and calm in the wake of a senseless "police action" and the arising of social awareness from just about every sect of our society. Looking back at Kung Fu now, I see it truly set itself apart from the brazen new batch of TV offerings of the day. Running in the same primetime pack with the likes of Maude, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Streets of San Francisco, this admittedly more self-controlled program struck a nerve with viewers, perhaps providing them a sense of understanding, a penchant to display passion, and a much-needed feeling of balance in an increasingly out-of-balance world.
And plenty of guest stars popped in each week. With old favorites such as Slim Pickens, Tina Louise, and papa John Carradine; up-and-comers such as Don Johnson and Harrison Ford; and just about every Asian character actor you've ever seen but never knew by name (sadly), the show's stable of capable drop-in actors were always ready to put on a good show. Or maybe folks just tuned in for the kung-fu fighting.
No doubt, the martial arts on display were mesmerizing to viewers, especially youngsters, who had yet to become fully exposed to the exploits of one Bruce Lee (he, incidentally, was considered for the part of Caine but ultimately passed over in deference to Carradine). Despite your adamant recollections, though, you erstwhile youth who proclaim the fast hands and swift kicking absolutely permeate the show in a dazzling and non-stop display of boss and bitchin' butt-kickin', the truth is only a couple of short fight sequences are generally included in each episode, cleverly run in slow motion to suggest that Caine is so fast that the human eye can't follow his at-speed assaults. The majority of each episode, then, is focused squarely on the human drama at hand, with a very methodical and patient exposition of the conflicts that arise. Like Caine's learned philosophy, each episode is metered and deliberate in its execution and, surprisingly enough, doesn't come off as painfully slow or otherwise laborious in contrast to today's quick-cut, rapid-fire, music-video mentality. The shows, therefore, are easy on the eyes and easy on the mind, too. In the end, they're really quite enjoyable -- even soothing -- to watch.
As for the episodes, here are the 29 you'll find within that originally
aired between 1973 and 1974:
* "The Well"
* "The Assassin"
* "The Chalice"
* "El Brujo"
* "The Squawman"
* "The Spirit-Helper"
* "The Tong"
* "The Soldier"
* "The Salamander"
* "The Hoots"
* "The Elixir"
* "The Gunman"
* "Empty Pages of a Dead Book"
* "A Dream within a Dream"
* "The Way of Violence Has No Mind"
* "In Uncertain Bondage"
* "Night of the Owls, Day of the Doves"
* "The Passion of Chen Yi"
* "Arrogant Dragon"
* "The Nature of Evil"
* "The Cenopath -- Part 1"
* "The Cenopath -- Part 2"
With thoughtful episode titles like these, you're assured the content of each will operate on a relatively deep level. It's a nice surprise, really, since most of us simply recall "empty hand" combat, one-hit wonder Carl Douglas's "Kung Fu Fighting" single, and Hanna-Barbera's Saturday morning cash-in, Hong Kong Phooey (that set is actually one I'm eagerly anticipating, truth be told).
In this second four-disc box set, Warner Bros. presents Kung Fu -- The Complete Second Season quite capably with the gross miscalculation that besmirched the first season set properly corrected here. What gross miscalculation? The image in the first-season box set was artificially matted from the original full-frame aspect ratio to a phony widescreen ratio of 1.78:1. Thinking, perhaps, that they could test the waters on a potentially less popular catalog property, Warner never anticipated how Kung Fu fans would lash out at such a presumption. Thankfully, the episodes presented in this second-season set are rendered in their original 1.33:1 format. The source material shows some elements of aging, especially in the opening titles of each episode, and you'll see some occasional dirt specks along the way. The original broadcasts had an inherent graininess, and that is present here as well. The color and detail, however, look quite nice, especially considering the original productions utilized a rather muted and "dusty" color palette. Frankly, these episodes look very good, better than I can ever recall. The audio flows steadily in a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix that's well balanced and always easy to discern.
As for the extras, there are a few and they're kinda different. First, there are two audio commentaries featuring David Carradine, for episodes "The Well" and "A Dream within a Dream," both of which are free-form recollections of the episodes. Carradine mainly reminds us of his preference for not reading the episode scripts until just before stepping in front of the camera; this, he says, allowed him to portray Caine as a somewhat bewildered fellow who couldn't quite comprehend the actions and motivations of the characters he interacted with. The commentaries are a bit rambling in content but good enough, I suppose. The really odd extra is the lengthy featurette "Zen and Now: A Dinner with David Carradine and Friends." In this, Carradine is joined for dinner by old friends from the Kung Fu series as well as new friends from Kill Bill.
There's little point in arguing against assertions that the show's Eastern reference is a bit contrived. While the show's technical advisor, Kam Yuen, did well to infuse a certain amount of authenticity, there's only so much that can be done on a TV-sized budget. Therefore, you'll notice the Eastern temple, shown in Caine's flashbacks, is really a redressed Camelot set. You'll also notice that Carradine is not of Asian descent -- not even half. And, if you're a student of the martial arts, you'll likely see that much of Caine's style and composure is not honest-to-goodness Eastern derived. Really, this is of little consequence to me since the program was nonetheless sincere in its efforts and did well to embody a slightly more transcendental presence in its narrative.
Once again, Kung Fu appears as an unexpected bright spot, a pleasure, in a time of overworked and hyperactive entertainment. Even if you don't consider yourself an avowed fan of Western fare, this "Eastern Western" will likely hold an appeal you never would have anticipated. I would highly recommend this become a part of any TV aficionado's video library. At the very least, rent it and see what you think. You may find enlightenment to your many unanswered questions with one still left to ponder: When will Season Three be released on DVD?
Have patience, Grasshopper.
This man, Caine, is not guilty of any transgression, and this court thanks him and the folks at Warner Bros. for reminding us how enlightening and soothing television drama can be. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2005 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 1167 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentaries on Two Episodes
* Featurette: "Zen and Now: A Dinner with David Carradine and Friends"