Our Judge Dennis Prince has completed his training and can now easily snatch this DVD from your open palm.
"You spoke of chance, Grasshopper, as if such a thing were certain to exist. In the matter you speak of, Destiny, there is no such thing as chance for whichever way we choose, right or left, it must lead to an end. And that end is our destiny."- Master Po
Perhaps the greatest draw of these adventures of the Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine, was the consistency of his character and the often stark contrast it provided when set against a conniving Western culture. Following a surprisingly successful premiere season on the ABC network in 1972 and carried forth during a second sustained year, the adventures of Caine wrapped up in a third and final season, presented now in Kung Fu—The Complete Third Season.
Facts of the Case
Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine, Kill Bill) is a Shaolin monk, half Chinese, half American. Previously banished from his homeland China after killing the Emperor's nephew in avenging the death of his Master Po (Keye Luke, Gremlins), Caine is now wandering the American West of 1872, searching for his half-brother, Danny, while hoping for the opportunity to someday peacefully return to China and plead his case. His travels abroad are not without peril, though, as Caine carries a $10,000 bounty on his head, offered by the Emperor for the renegade priest's capture. As he entertains honest men and women while thwarting the affronts of all manner of crooks, thieves, and would-be captors, Caine meditates upon the teachings of Master Po, applying those lessons and life principles in his daily encounters. Now, as his travels lead him to finally reunite with Danny, amid much confusion and deception, Caine can also return to his native China and bring his quest "full circle."
As the series wraps up and we're afforded the opportunity to take a holistic view of the entire experience, Kung Fu remains as one of the better artifacts of modern television. It exists as something of an odd duck but a welcome one just the same. While other television dramas of the day, largely police or emergency action shows, were eager to jar viewers into attentiveness, Kung Fu outclassed its competitors with its absolute absence of heavy-handed heroics, shrill situations, and assaulting scores. Rather, this unique "eastern western" was as precise and patient as the Buddhist philosophy it projected. Each episode, while somewhat predictable in overall device and resolution, was written to allow ample time to explore the key characters of the moment and explore their moods and motives. Caine's actions and reactions would provide commentary, either actively or passively, on the nature of those he confronted or consoled, offering viewers a rich and rewarding experience that often settles in some time after the hour-long episode has ended. The wafting strains of the eastern flute, combined with the uneven yet undeniably enlightened utterances of Caine himself, would consistently deliver a show with a mood, a message, and a reason. As it was set in the American West of 1872, the show to this day remains as relevant as it did thirty years ago.
The essence of what makes Kung Fu work so well is the complete antithesis of current martial arts melees like Kill Bill and Kung Fu Hustle. While many may wistfully (and incorrectly) ruminate over all of the exciting martial arts action that flashed across the television screen each week, the fact is that each episode contains but a few minutes of actual fighting. Resisting the temptation to replace plot with pummeling, Kung Fu maintained its discipline of providing thoughtful and insightful excursions into the human animal and emerged all the better for it. Each show would ultimately feature a display of the ancient Eastern art of empty-handed combat, still offered in slow-motion action, allowing the viewers full opportunity to witness all the skill and elegance of the dance of defense. And while it may seem ridiculous to attempt to present such subject matter in the same manner today, with home audiences purportedly requiring non-stop visual assault in order to remain "entertained," the truth is that Kung Fu is just as mesmerizing—maybe more so—because of its minimalist-yet-mature approach. This is a show that clearly deserves another look, especially by younger generations who may have missed the original "Kung Fu craze."
As for the episodes, here are the twenty-four you'll find that originally aired between 1974 and 1975:
• "Blood of the Dragon, Part One"
In this third and final four-disc boxed set, Warner Brothers Home Video presents Kung Fu—The Complete Third Season in admirable fashion. As on the Season Two release, the episodes here are presented here in their original full-frame broadcast format (thankfully not repeating the Season One mock letterboxing transgression). The source material telegraphs its Seventies origin, looking somewhat grainy at times and alternately soft at others. The colors look good, though (if a bit dusty), and the overall digital rendering is certainly an improvement above the broadcast quality of three decades ago. The audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono mix that's well managed yet unfortunately constrained to the center channel. The audio elements are well balanced, though, and the dialogue remains easily intelligible throughout.
The included extras are very worthwhile. Beginning with two episode-specific commentaries, actor David Carradine freely offers his insight and anecdotes on "Blood of the Dragon, Part Two" and "Full Circle." His comments are interesting and his memories apparently quite vivid of episodes that were filmed over thirty years ago. It's clear that the show and his career-defining role as Caine hold a special place in his heart. Before the program matter begins, Carradine also offers a brief introduction to the third season, filmed atop the Great Wall of China in the bitter cold of winter. Carradine also attempts to offer a deeper look into the Shaolin mentality in the set's featurette, "David Carradine's Shaolin Diary: Back to the Beginning." Intended to culminate in a return visit to the Shaolin Temple, this slightly off-track yet still interesting travelogue spends more time exploring Beijing, the Summer Palace, and the Great Wall instead. This isn't to say that the journey is wasted; not at all. Enjoy the scenery and the ruminations of Carradine but don't expect to have the mysteries of Shaolin and Buddhist philosophy unfolded before you.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Clearly the key issue with this final boxed set is the order of the episodes as presented. It's unmistakable that the overall story wraps up with the aptly-titled "Full Circle," yet that is presented as the fourth-to-last episode. While that matter may cause significant disturbance to Kung Fu enthusiasts, it accurately reflects the original broadcast order of the final adventures. Certainly, this was an issue that existed back in 1975, the final episodes being aired irrespective of production order, thereby causing a bit of confusion for viewers. In fact, it seems the entire final season was aired in haphazard order despite the actual production schedule. Nonetheless, thanks to DVD, fans can watch the episodes in proper production order while maintaining an accurate historical record of the manner in which the series wrapped up on ABC. The proper "viewing order," by production records, would be as follows:
• "Cry of the Night Beast" (Prod. #166251)
While it's common that a television series may shoot particular scripts out of plot-order, the above production schedule was relatively faithful to the story developments as the final season progressed. Aficionados may wish to view "The Vanishing Image" after the two-part "Blood of the Dragon" episodes and may also elect to screen "The Last Raid" and "Ambush" immediately following "The Forbidden Kingdom," resuming production order thereafter.
"Is it not better to see yourself truly than care about how others see you?"—Master Po
Kung Fu continues to be a gem among Seventies television and a welcome respite from all the imposing "entertainment" that streams across the cable and digital lines today. The show opens the mind, soothes the soul, and reminds us how truly imperative good writing and capable acting are to a fully entertaining experience. To that end, Kung Fu has achieved its goal and has successfully concluded its journey. It's a show for the ages and, appropriately, is one that can still be enjoyed by viewers of all ages as each may find something different to take away from the encounter.
Young Caine: May I ask, Master, when I leave the temple, what will be
expected of me?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentaries on Two Episodes
Review content copyright © 2005 Dennis Prince; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.