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Kung Fu's Number Two
by Christopher Dow
When trailers for the movie Kill Bill, Part 1 began appearing, they promised slam-bam martial arts action, with Uma Thurman facing off against Lucy Liu and other villains over a scything of razor-edged blades and equally sharp repartee. They also promised a healthy dose of humor—not just in the snappy dialog but in the film’s pastiche of stylistic trends that low-budget action adventure films have exhibited over the past forty years. But those aspects aren’t what intrigued me—it was one single flashed image among the trailer’s riot of quick cuts that caught my attention.
It was the craggy, care-worn face of an older man who has seen the bottom as well as the top but whose eyes retain a sense of pride, power, and, yes, purpose. It was the face of David Carradine. As I saw the image come and go in the blink of an eye, I was struck by the appropriateness of Carradine’s appearance in a film by Quentin Tarantino, who is known for paying homage to past action and crime films in his own work. Reservoir Dogs is steeped in the subgenre of the noir heist film, and Pulp Fiction is as much a paean to the crime drama as it is a breakthrough of stylistic and story-telling conventions. And his third film, Jackie Brown, featured Pam Grier, whose work in crime and action films spans several decades, and revitalized the career of Robert Forster, whose solid work was one of the highlights of genre films like Alligator.
Like Grier, especially, Carradine has done so much of this sort of stuff over the years that he has virtually become an icon, even ignoring his several turns as various incarnations of Kwai Chang Caine. But of course, it is his portrayal of the displaced Shaolin monk traversing the post-Civil War American West on a quest for family and spiritual absolution that most defines Carradine.
In Kill Bill, Carradine plays Bill, the boss of a group of assassins who, in a fit of personal pique, shoots one of his own—Thurman—and leaves her for dead. Bill is as bad as Kwai Chang is good, but Carradine is experienced at playing various levels of the human spectrum, and no matter how he is cast, he deserves a role in a Tarantino film that is a tribute to and extension of martial arts and action movies.
Until the 1960s, martial arts as a cinematic action device was virtually unknown in the West. The few brief mentions of martial arts in mainstream film came principally after World War II, when GIs returning from Japan brought back a smattering of karate. The perfect example is Bad Day at Black Rock, in which one-armed Spencer Tracey uses karate to defeat Ernest Borgnine.
Those instances were rare, though, and early martial arts movies were the province of the Eastern—Chinese and Japanese action films that were those countries’ equivalents to the American Western. Samurai movies predominated in Japan, and they were generally of higher artistic quality than the plethora of Hong Kong chop-socky flicks churned out by the likes of the Shaw Brothers Studios and Golden Harvest Productions, which portrayed kung fu as a mayhem of flying fists and feet fueled by hot heads and turgid emotions.
Camp spy movies and television shows of the 1960s helped bring martial arts to the fore in the West as Derek Flint (James Coburn) of Our Man Flint and In Like Flint, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. series, and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) of The Avengers series chopped and kicked their enemies into submission. And then Bruce Lee exploded into the public consciousness as the Green Hornet’s sidekick, Kato, who did more than just sidekick.
Bruce Lee is undoubtedly cinema’s most important martial arts star because he made martial arts combat in movies an international phenomenon. And he accomplished that because, first, he really knew his stuff. No one who watched him move on screen could doubt that he truly was very dangerous. Lee also had a powerful screen presence, and even better, he could bring some measure of depth to his portrayal of a character. His untimely demise may leave us wondering if his acting abilities would have eventually approached his physical expertise, but even at his worst, he was a better actor than most of his predecessors and successors, no matter how skillful they might be as martial artists. And last, which is arguably more important than his demonstration of expert fighting technique, Lee transmitted aspects of the self-realization and self-perfection that are inherent in the martial arts and all too often ignored in films featuring martial arts combat.
When the Kung Fu television series premiered, few viewers, if any, could have known that the character of Kwai Chang Caine was, to all practical purposes, created with Bruce Lee in mind or that he had been passed over for the role because he was “too Oriental” in appearance. The producers chose David Carradine because he had enough of an Asian cast to his features to pass for half-Chinese, half-Anglo, and because he had enough physical grace to fake the fight scenes. Even so, it was obvious to any viewer of the Kung Fu pilot who had seen Bruce Lee in action that Carradine knew about as much martial arts as David McCallum or Diana Rigg. I except James Coburn, who was, in real life, one of Bruce Lee’s students.
Since the days of Kung Fu, scores of martial arts actors have made their marks. Many of them have been extremely expert in a physical sense, and their fighting skills are exciting and deserve to be highlighted. Often, however, the brightness of these stars’ martial expertise has left Carradine in shadow, and many viewers, as well as observers in the martial arts community, have unfairly disparaged his abilities. Despite this, I would argue that Carradine is, historically, cinema’s second-most important martial arts star, and interestingly, the reasons are exactly opposite those that made Bruce Lee number one.
While Lee’s martial arts mastery made him stand out, Carradine in the Kung Fu pilot was unquestionably a dancer going through the moves. He was an amateur pretending. But as the series progressed, an interesting thing happened. Carradine actually began to gain real skill. Perhaps that skill never reached the level of someone like Lee, who had trained for a lifetime, but by the time the series ended, it was obvious that Carradine really had learned something. And that something showed in many of his subsequent films, both good and bad, where he demonstrated that the moves he once mimicked had become genuine.
For Western viewers, this was a revelation. While it seemed impossible to many of us that we could ever attain the level of a Bruce Lee, we saw that Carradine, with instruction and hard work, had truly learned something useful, worthwhile, and real. Essentially, we were witnessing first-hand the process of an apprentice being instructed in the martial arts, and in doing so, we understood that we, too, could learn. If Lee was the opening of the door, Carradine was the nudge across the threshold. It’s no coincidence that Western interest in kung fu and other martial arts blossomed in the wake of Kung Fu. If an amateur like Carradine could gain a degree of proficiency, then so could we.
But there was another truth that we learned by watching the growing proliferation of martial arts combat in the movies during the next couple of decades—you can train a reasonably fit actor to perform martial arts sequences with some believability, but training a martial artist to act is another matter entirely. A few martial artists, such as Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, are decent actors as well as high-level martial artists, but just as often these days, we see actors performing the moves, and we prefer them because they can credibly portray characters. In Kill Bill, Tarantino has Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu kicking ass, but if you believe that in real life they are expert blade masters, I’ve got 40 acres in West Texas that you might be interested in buying. Likewise, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 2 was convincing in the fight scenes, and so was Matt Damon in the Bourne films. And of course, the Matrix series shows that intense training for the actors coupled with camera and editing techniques and special effects can make for exciting, if not exactly realistic, martial arts combat.
For all his martial ability, Lee was never more than an adequate actor. Given time—and the roles of more diverse characters—he might have matured as a thespian, but time was something he didn’t have, and he used what he did have to become a great martial artist. Carradine, on the other hand, came from an acting family, was trained as an actor, and had made more than a dozen appearances in film and TV before the Kung Fu pilot aired in 1972.
Since then, in nearly 150 roles, he has portrayed an incredible variety of characters. This isn’t to say that he hasn’t done an awful job on occasion or that he hasn’t been in some terrible movies. Both are true, but only to be expected considering the sheer volume of his work. We all have bad days along with the good, and if Carradine has suffered the former with the likes of Fred Olen Ray and Mats Helge, he also has worked for outstanding directors such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Ingmar Bergman, and Walter Hill. Can we imagine Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, or Jean Claude Van Damme (ignoring the accent) adequately portraying Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory? Or the tormented Vietnam veteran in Carradine’s own Americana? Would any of them have the panache to play Pearl in Sonny Boy?
The point is that, being an actor, Carradine set a standard with Kwai Chang Caine that probably no other martial arts star has managed to equal in terms of character. Bruce Lee may have been dynamic and intense, but he also was aloof, and his tremendous skills elevated him above the rest of us. Carradine’s Caine, on the other hand, is a character with skill as great as Lee’s real skill, but in him, it is secondary to his earthy intellect, kindness, humility, and personal warmth. He is such a spiritual and questioning soul that the other characters are amazed that his apparent naïveté and modesty mask a profound philosophy and formidable prowess. Instead of rising above us, Caine lifted us up to a higher level. Even his enemies often benefited from their interaction with him.
Carradine invested Caine with a sense of humanity and kinship that I don’t think Lee could have managed. Had Lee played the part, he could have kicked ass and taught the lesson, and we would have been impressed and we would have learned, but we would not have felt the emotional attachment to him that we felt for Carradine’s Caine. And it was precisely through that emotional attachment that the spiritual aspects of the martial arts were finally portrayed on-screen, showing how the philosophy behind the techniques can apply not simply to combat but to daily life. So, if Lee represents the realization and perfection of self through the martial arts, Carradine is the understanding of the ways martial arts teaches that self to function harmoniously within society and culture. Lee shone the international spotlight on martial arts and brought them into our consciousness; Carradine brought the martial arts not just into our living rooms but into our hearts.
One final sidelight is pertinent here, too, and that has to do with techniques used to film martial arts sequences. The old Hong Kong chop-socky movies generally were content to film fights with relatively static camera angles, varying only from medium shots to close-ups. Bruce Lee’s best complete film, Enter the Dragon, raised the level of martial arts cinematic technique to that of the basic Hollywood action-adventure of its day, with a greater sophistication in camera angle and movement. But it was with Kung Fu that we really saw the genesis of the next level of camera and editing technique for fight sequences, particularly in the use of creative camera angles and slow motion.
It is likely that the use of slow motion in Kung Fu was the result of several factors. Most obvious is that two major Hollywood directors—Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah—had pioneered the use of slow motion in violent action sequences with dramatic effect, and when something is successful in film, some minor rendition of it is sure to show up on television. And having appeared there, it quickly re-enters the realm of film to become an established phrase of our visual language.
On a more practical level, I suspect that, at least in the beginning, slow motion also helped gloss over Carradine’s weaknesses as a martial artist, making him look faster, more accurate, and more powerful than he really was. We can’t imagine directors slowing down Bruce Lee, for example, when his blazing speed, accuracy, and power begged for real-time display. But if the slow motion was there to mask Carradine’s initial lack of abilities, it was a serendipitous circumstance. Using slow motion for the fights in Kung Fu had the artistic effect of suspending viewers in the timeless space created by Caine’s training, lending them a sense of oneness not simply with the character and his extraordinary abilities but with his inner calm even while in the midst of battle.
Today, we see slow motion in fighting sequences all the time, as well as the diversity of camera angle and movement for martial arts fighting that were pioneered in part by Kung Fu. The slo-mo martial arts acrobatics of Neo and his compatriots and enemies in the Matrix series, for example, owe a direct debt to the Kung Fu series. And those techniques have led to even greater variety, such as the herky-jerky acceleration and deceleration of camera speed now frequently used to impart a more visceral involvement with the pace and intensity of a fight à la the Bourne films.
So, with that much cinematic history embodied in Carradine, how could Quentin Tarantino not feature him in Kill Bill? Once the second part was released, my initial hope that Carradine’s latest moment in the sun might be a little more substantial than his all-too-brief appearance in the trailer has been rewarded. In his scenes, he breathes obligatorily into a flute but all the while delivers a performance that is not simply nuanced but fresh and believable. As always, Carradine is the actor first and the martial artist second, and that fact not only focuses the spotlight on his contributions to action films but highlights the influence he has had on countless people who practice the martial arts in real life.