Kung Fu: The Movie – Kwai Chang Caine revisited

Kung Fu David Carradine 1986

This week’s Throwback Thursday offering is the made-for-tv-movie follow-up to the original ‘Kung Fu’ television series. It’s not only faithful (though with a bit of cheese), it’s a rather spiffy sequel for the most part.


As one of the best of the stern chase (from the navy cliche “a stern chase is a long chase”) television series around (and a western to boot!), Kung Fu has always been one of my favorites.

Not only has it been years since I’ve seen the original series in its entirety, I’ve never caught Kung Fu: The Movie — the follow-up made-for-TV feature done more than a decade later — until recently. (Nor have I seen any of the subsequent sequels — Kung Fu: The Next Generation, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues or the webisodes.) And now? Having tucked this little gem under my belt, finally after all these years? I’m itching to return to my first love — the original three seasons of this David Carradine vehicle.

… fans of Kung Fu should seek this vehicle out.

We revisit Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine reprising his original role) as we saw him so many times previously during the series, in yet one more non-descript western town where he’s minding his own business while performing some humble work task to cover his room and board. Naturally his past again discovers his whereabouts and catches up to him in the form of The Manchu (Mako), the vengeful father of the royal Caine killed back in China all those years ago and one of the reasons Caine high-tailed it out of China and to the states. In tow and under his mystical control, The Manchu has brought along the supposed instrument of Caine’s death, deadly martial arts master Chung Wang (son of Bruce Lee,┬áBrandon Lee, in his first film role) … who just so happens to be the illegitimate son of our hero. (*cue dramatic music*)

While the story is engaging, you pretty well know what shakes down if you’re familiar with the original series: Caine gets rousted when he steps in to assist the down-trodden and other innocents. Caine gets set up and blamed for trouble he didn’t cause. Shenanigans ensue with baddies that force Caine’s involvement. And dire consequences come to a head all around while the villains eventually get what’s coming to them.

Just about everything you knew and loved from the initial three seasons of the show is packed into the 90+ minutes of this film: The flashbacks with Master Po (Keye Luke) and Caine (both with Caine as a boy and as an adult), the slow-motion fight sequences indicative of the series and Caine’s ultra-calm demeanor in the face of danger (not to mention the aura and mysticism which surround him).

Just about everything you knew and loved from the initial three seasons of the show is packed into the 90+ minutes of this film …

And speaking of mysticism, it’s that very thing which adds the cheese factor to the film. For the movie-of-the-week fare common place in the 80s when this film was produced, that was just fine. But … within the follow-up to a classic series like Kung Fu? It just doesn’t work. As a matter of fact it does nothing but throw “What the hell were they thinking … ??!?” thoughts your way. For example: There are several scenes of Caine meditating. As someone walks in on him while doing so they discover — much to their surprise — he’s levitating. Yes … you read right: Levitating. He’s off the ground and hovering in the air. *huh* I don’t remember him doing that in any of the television episodes … do you? Now it’s all well and fine the mystery and mystique of the character is realized, but to show him actually floating in mid-air, well … it just doesn’t cut the mustard. This “trick” bit of hokey-ness came over as disingenuous to the history of what we know about Caine. The people who walked in on him may have taken pause and done a double take when they they saw he was a foot off the ground, but seeing it on the small screen simply makes you groan. There was no need for it, no reason for it to be written into the script. The several instances of this shown were the biggest hunks of cheese moments in an otherwise decent story. (Other rather laughable moments include Mako’s comical, yellow pointy fingernails and the spinning medallion he twirls at “key” moments in the story.)

And how about the disc itself? It was your basic no nonsense, no frills DVD with a straight, clean transfer. Nothing special about the sound or visual qualities (both adequate) that would add to or subtract from your enjoyment of the film. Zero extras, no additional nothing. (It was a made-for-television film, you know.) While it would have been nice to see at least a few bonuses thrown on it, I was happy with the fact I simply got more Kung Fu for my time and effort.

But, overall? Fans of Kung Fu should seek this vehicle out. The good within it, far and away, outweighs the bad, Young Grasshopper.

Kung Fu: The Movie was generously provided to CliqueClack by the Warner Archive Collection for review.

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

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