I always thought David Carradine was Asian. I have been watching him in movies and on TV since I was young lad, and I always thought he was of that descent. I used to see his brothers Keith and Robert and wonder how in the world they were related, but then I realized that he was their half brother or something like that. Either way, he looks Asian and I think he’s a skilled performer, so this probably explains how he landed the lead role of Kwai Chang Caine in the TV series “Kung Fu”. I also didn’t know that Bruce Lee was passed over for the role that Carradine eventually got. Interesting. Interesting. Interesting...
Kung Fu: The Complete Second Season follows Caine, a Shaolin priest, who is trained in the wisdom and warfare of China’s ancients. He roams the old American West of the 1800s, searching for his half-brother(who is American, Caine is an immigrant I believe). On top of all this, there is a bounty on his head but the ever resourceful priest keeps moving along, having an indelible effect on anyone and everyone he comes into contact with.
There is an easiness to Carradine’s performance that makes you immediately like the character of Kwai Chang Caine. He is soft spoken, polite and only uses his martial arts skills when he deems it absolutely necessary. Everything about this character is nuanced and deliberate. Like you might imagine from a high priest, there are no wasted words or moments. Whether he is caught between a lands rights war between farmers and railroad security agents, or he’s forced to battle with a Chinese immigrant gang that has adopted the violent ways of the country they reside in, or even if he’s making men jealous by currying the favor of a women named Theodora the bottom line is...Caine is on a mission and he’s not going to stray from it. He is a simple man living a simple life.
I find the grace within Carradine’s character structure inspiring. I tend to think that Forest Whitaker drew heavily from this character when he stared in the film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Yes, I know that the roles are different, but I get the same hesitation from both characters. I understand that they seem to look for every way out of fighting, until they are finally pushed to a point where the must confront the obstacle’s in their way. Putting this character in the old west is also a great device because America was such a new country then. The people he comes into contact with have never seen anything like him. And whether the people end up loving him or hating him, the way he carries himself forces them to give him their respect. I have a great deal of admiration for characters that are drawn this way and I am not surprised that Caine was such a popular character and had such an effect on someone like Quentin Tarantino.
Tarantino mentions him in Pulp Fiction(at the end of the movie when the Samuel L. Jackson character talks about “walking the earth”) and as everyone knows, he had him play Bill in the Kill Bill movies. In fact, the character that Carradine embodies in those movies seems like a Caine who has lost his way. Someone who has fallen prey to the vagaries of the Western World. Sort of like the Tony Jaa character Ting in Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior. It is as if Tarantino is documenting himself navigate the murky waters of Hollywood. That however is for another discussion entirely.
There is something about the shows from the 1970s that I feel are lacking in today's TV. When watching Kung Fu: The Complete Second Season, I was shocked at how much each episode looks like a miniature Western film. The landscapes are lush, the characters not forced, the plots and dialogue move at a deliberate pace but never seem like they are lagging. All of that has been captured on this 4 disc set. I especially enjoyed seeing a young Harrison Ford in the “Crossties” episode. He has a talk with Caine who is in jail, and it seems to embody the whole crux of the show in my mind. You have American ways of doing things and Caine’s way and it seems that no matter what Harrison Ford says, Caine isn’t going to retreat from his position. Yet, there is a simpleness to him that isn’t like someone who isn’t sharp. More like someone who is sharper then everyone else, so he can afford to be the easy going person that he is. He can afford to be quite resolute in his beliefs because he knows above everyone else that he is right.
Commentary Tracks by David Carradine
Only two of these here, but with David Carradine how are you not going to enjoy yourself? I chose to focus on the “A Dream Within a Dream” episode mainly because it came later in the boxset and I wanted to hear his thoughts on a later episode. Carradine is such a relaxed and easy going personality. He seems almost grateful that he can even do a commentary. He points out that he played the flute, how hot it was shooting in the desert of Yuma, AZ, how the show was famous for “rack focusing” and many other things. He calls this commentary a “trip down memory lane”, and nobody seems to be enjoying it more then him. He has such a reverence for the entire craft of moviemaking. It’ s as though he doesn’t need to talk about his character, his motivation or anything like that, because he’s not separate from those things really. I tend to think this is because Carradine brings so much of himself to each role. There is no pretense here. Just a wise, old actor remembering what it was like to do a show that introduced him to the world.
Zen and Now: A Dinner with David Carradine and Friends
If you have no interest in the “Kung Fu” TV show, this companion piece is worth the price of admission alone. It features Michael Madsen, Vivica A. Fox and Cynthia Rothrock among others. It is slyly broken up into Appetizers, Main Course and Dessert. It begins like a modern day episode of Kung Fu ering of people at Yamashiro restaurant in Hollywood, CA. It shows shots of David Carradine getting ready for the evening, driving to the discussion, he talks about the magic flute(at home), and it’s really nicely shot. It focuses on the people at the dinner, much like a documentary would. We hear from a technical advisor on the show but the treat for me was seeing Cynthia Rothrock who I have seen quick butt on many a late night SHOWTIME/HBO movie. As the meal gets underway, the players sit around a large table and just talk about the show, what it meant to them, how it has influenced modern martial arts movies. I also enjoyed hearing Carradine’s thoughts on the Kill Bill movies.
A few times, I have to admit, that I thought this might be a little much. It just seems out of line with the David Carradine/Caine character. Hearing people like Michael Madsen say such typical things about Carradine having a “screen presence” sort of made me cringe, but I still think that this a great extra feature for the DVD and I am happy that they put it on here. What I do like is that David Carradine is very much the celebration of this piece. The people are all here for him, they have come wanting to ask questions and like an elder priest might be...Carradine is all too happy to answer. Yet, he also talks about how he sort of went out his way to show the world that as much as he may seem like Caine, he ISN’T Caine.
Standard Version presented in a format preserving the aspect ratio of it’s original television exhibition. I think this is 1.33:1 or something like that. I even heard that they people that did the First Season added the wide screen effect to that. To me it just seems like a waste of time. I mean, these shows as we remember them are full screen. What is the point of trying to alter that experience? These shows have aged well as I think most shows have. I think film, no matter what happens with digital(and I do love and support digital) just has something over video. I don’t think that this show works being shot or even shown in Hi Definition. When it was created, it was created for the small screen. It wasn’t meant to be this epic spectacle, even though the shows do have an epicness to them. This dual-layer format looks great. The compression holds up and with the discs being doublesided, there is no apparent loss of quality. In fact, not even my AMW DVD could bring it out and that is saying something!
Sound is Dolby Digital English: Mono. Everything is really sharp here. As I think I have stated in other reviews, I am constantly amazed at how much these shows have held up throughout the years. When they were made, nobody could have foreseen the advent of DVDs. In fact, I am willing to bet that nobody could foresee VHS. Yet, without that foresight(nowadays, sometimes it seems like some movies are made specifically for the DVD release) all 23 episodes on this disc hold up amazingly. The sound doesn’t cut out. It doesn’t sound muted of crackly(although that sometimes can enhance the screening experience). In fact, everything about the sound is just perfect. I was able to set my TV to a specific volume and I didn’t have to start clicking around and adjusting everything. I think I am going to try and screen a few episodes on a friends surround sound system, just to get an idea of how great the sound quality can be.
The packaging is so well done for this boxset. It is simple. It is a solid green color, with Caine walking on the front and the sun rising behind him. On the back, is picture of the him with long hair and a description of this DVDs contents. Above that in brown lettering it reads “I am Caine”. Inside, the discs fold out, two to a side, with assorted pictures and descriptions of each show. It even lists which “special” actors are in that episode like Slim Pickens, Don Johnson, John Carradine, etc. There are even some words to live by quotes from Master Kan. This thing even lists the date the particular episode aired!! I really appreciate how accessible this DVD collection is. I say this because I am a newcomer to this show. I have no real frame of reference. My description and ideas have all stemmed from being thrown into the Second Season, watching the episodes and studying this layout. Now, however, I feel like I have something to add to the discussion of “Kung Fu”. I feel like I understand Caine and why he not only effected the characters in this show, but the millions of viewers who watched it.
TV on DVD is the best thing to happen to DVDs. I know that there is talk of the 50 GB blue ray technology completely taking over and revolutionizing the medium(and it probably will) but this isn’t what I am talking about. Rather, I am talking about TV. The box that has been in your home your whole life. Before there was Tivo, before there even VCRs...when it was just “the tube” in your home and you watched it. DVD’s capture this without even realizing what they are doing. “Kung Fu” is such a huge part of the lexicon. It is so important. It is right up there with other shows like “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke”. Caine is very much like the Michael Landon character from “Highway to Heaven”. He comes into a situation and he effects it. He is an immovable object. Someone who isn’t easily swayed or deterred. When we watch him, we are watching idealized versions of ourselves. Maybe versions we could never be.
Kung Fu: The Complete Second Season is everything that’s great about the DVD format. It is a simply laid out DVD, with enough content to give the viewer hours of enjoyment. It keeps things simple(like the Caine character) and even expands on the character by allowing Carradine to comment on a couple of episodes. I had never watched as much “Kung Fu” as I had before this DVD boxset was given to me, but I feel like I have been let on a secret. I know what the excitement has been about. I know why the character of Caine is revered by many.
To quote Master Kan, ”If we have the wisdom to learn, all may teach us their virtues.”