Sunday, June 15, 2014

Nostalgia Theater: Kung Fu: The Legend Continues Raises Caine

David Carradine (L) and Chris Potter (R) team-up to dish out wisdom and beatings
From 1972 to 1975, ABC aired the TV series Kung Fu. Created by Ed Spielman and starring David Carradine as Chinese-American hero Kwai Chang Caine, it's probably best known today for being the show that didn't cast Bruce Lee in the lead and/or stole his concept (both of these accounts are in dispute) and for using herky-jerky slo-mo for its martial arts "action" sequences (not in dispute at all). With Carradine's quirky Caine, a serene Shaolin monk preaching peace while kicking ass, coupled with the "quest" angle of our hero searching the Old West for his lost brother, the series either kicked off a stateside martial arts craze all its own or, at the very least, arrived just in time to capitalize on one. Here's the intro:

Kung Fu burned white hot for a bit before fading away in 1975, three seasons and 63 episodes later. But cancellation wasn't actually the end, and home studio Warner Bros. tried a few times to bring it roaring back to...well, slow motion. First up was Kung Fu: The Movie, a made-for-TV special that aired on CBS in 1986, with Carradine reprising Caine, and co-starring Brandon Lee (yes, that Brandon Lee) as his heretofore unknown son. That was followed in 1989 by another TV movie, again on CBS, entitled Kung Fu: The Next Generation, set in the present day and again starring Lee, but this time as Johnny Caine, the great-grandson of Carradine's Caine (who doesn't appear). Here's a promo for the flick, intended as a backdoor pilot:

That project didn't go anywhere past the pilot stage, but a mere four years later, Warner Bros. tried again for syndication, this time bringing Carradine back into the fold while preserving the modern day setting of the last movie. The result was Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, one of the weirdest conceptual mish-moshes I've ever seen. The premise of the skein, which premiered in January of 1993, had Carradine again playing Kwai Chang Caine, this time the grandson of the original Caine, who tries to keep the old ways of the Shaolin alive -- all the while solving crimes with his police detective son Peter (Chris Potter, also the voice of Gambit on Fox's X-Men). Talk about the content-by-committee. Here, watch the intro for the full skinny:

With Caine dispensing aphorisms like "Arrogance is the downfall of anyone who subverts the truth," while his Cain Jr. spouted cliches like, "I'm a cop! That's who I am, that's what I do!" it's hard to figure out who the audience was for Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. The slow-motion martial arts stuff was likely to be off-putting to modern audiences, and not helping much were the paint-by-numbers stories and cheapie production values, with Toronto standing-in a bit too obviously for San Francisco. Nonetheless, The Legend Continues managed 88 episodes by the time it ended in '97. In fact, it wasn't even low ratings that did it in but the shuttering of the Prime-Time Entertainment Network, which packaged the show (they were the same bunch that put out Time Trax at the same time).

Although The Legend Continues ran longer than Kung Fu, it's kind of a forgotten curiosity today, which would be odd (considering the cache the original retains today) except for the fact that it wasn't especially good. A few years later, Carradine found new cultural currency as the title character in Quentin Tarentino's mid-2000s Kill Bill duology before passing away under less-that-auspicious circumstances in '09. Meanwhile, there's been talk on-and-off of reviving Kung Fu as a theatrical, with Baz Luhrmann (yes, that Baz Luhrmann) in talks to direct at last word, though I'll believe that when it happens. Meanwhile, for the curious among you, the first season of Kung Fu: The Legend Continues just became available to own via Warners' manufacture-on-demand service, and you can pick it up here if you're curious.

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