By Donald Liebenson
Snicker if you will, but Kung Fu was one of the most influential
TV series of the Super70s, one that managed to inject a note of both
spirituality and Eastern religion into the standard Western formula and
make it seem new.
Everybody was kung-fu fighting after the 1972 premiere of this mystic
western starring David Carradine (snatching the role from Bruce Lee) in
his signature, Emmy-nominated role as Caine, a stoic Shaolin monk forced
to flee China after killing the royal family member who slew his Master.
Our wandering hero roams the west in search of his long-lost brother,
while eluding American and Imperial bounty hunters, and imparting his
ancient wisdom on those he encounters and is compelled to aid. Kung-Fu
was never a ratings force, but its cult status was assured long before
Samuel L. Jackson referenced it in Pulp Fiction.
Along with the inaugural 15 episodes, this three-disc
set contains the feature-length pilot that establishes the series'
iconography: the inscrutable aphorisms ("When you cease to strive to
understand, then you will know without understanding"); the
flashbacks to Caine's youth, where the orphaned half-American and
half-Chinese boy served as disciple ("Grasshopper") to the Old
Man; and, of course, the anticipated moments when the peaceful Caine, like
Billy Jack, is reluctantly compelled by some frontier bigot to use
his fighting skills. Look for appearances by father John Carradine and
brothers Keith and Robert in the episode, "Dark Angel." That's
11-year-old future Oscar-winner Jodie Foster in "Althea." Other
notable episodes include the Emmy-winning "An Eye for an Eye"
and "Chains," featuring an Emmy-nominated turn by Michael Greene
as a not-so-gentle giant to whom an imprisoned Caine is chained.
"With each ending," Caine observes in the episode, "The
Third Man," comes a new beginning." Kung Fu's new
beginning comes on DVD. Thanks to the timeless frontier setting and the
uniqueness of its genre-bending concept, Kung Fu dates better than
other Super70s series. As these episodes demonstrate, the show still has
plenty of kick.
While it may not rank with Richard Kimble's fateful
meeting with the One-Armed Man in the series finale of The Fugitive,
Caine's reunion with his long-lost brother, Danny, brings Kung Fu,
to quote the title of the four-episode story arc's conclusion, "Full
Circle." The third series' rich iconography and episodes featuring
returning characters may make this final season heady going for newcomers.
But those who have faithfully followed Caine (David Carradine in his
iconic role) on his nomadic adventures will be richly rewarded with some
of the series' best episodes.
The third season begins with a stellar two-parter,
"Blood of the Dragon," in which Caine seeks the truth about his
grandfather's murder, while Imperial assassins are dispatched to kill
Caine. The venerable Patricia Neal guest-stars as the grandfather's
iron-willed, cold-hearted former lover. Eddie Albert also stars as a
doctor who sides with Caine. Other memorable guest stars this season
include William Shatner broguing it up, Scotty-style, as a sea captain who
arrives with an Imperial pardon for Caine (but at what cost?) in "A
Small Beheading." Barbara Hershey portrays an aspiring Shoalin priest
in the two-parter, "Besieged." In "The Brothers Caine, a
pre-Airplane Leslie Nielsen is a ruthless magnate who puts a
$10,000 price on Danny's head, making for an awkward reunion when Danny
thinks that Caine is a bounty hunter. David's father, John, returns as
blind preacher Serenity Johnson in "Ambush."
The third season was distinguished by innovative episodes set in China
during Caine's "Grasshopper" tutelage. In "The Demon
God," the youth, poisoned by a prince, experiences mystical visions
of his older, wandering self, who is stung by a scorpion. In "The
Thief of Chendo," young Caine's Master imagines an adventure for the
aspiring priest. Two Carradine commentaries, and a near-hour long
chronicle of Carradine's 30-years-on visit to a Shoalin monastery in China
(an incredible journey that ends with Carradine's soulful rendition of
"America the Beautiful") help to give Kung Fu a worthy
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