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Kung Fu The Pilot

Kung Fu was a popular t.v. series that ran from 1972 to 1975. It stars David Carradine as Caine, a Shaolin monk who wanders the Old West. The pilot shows how Caine became a monk, why he is wandering the West, and how he is terrible at keeping his principles. More about that later. We start with Caine in a group of boys waiting in front of a temple. The priest comes out and sends some home, telling the rest to stay. We see the boys waiting through rain. Then the priest comes out again and sends home a group that had gotten bored and started playing a game to pass the time. Caine and the other boys who weren't playing are invited in. They are given drinks, which all but Caine drink from. The others are sent home and Caine is told he can stay. When asked why he didn't drink, he said it was because the old man hadn't drunk first. This is when we learn that his parents and grandparents are all dead, and that his father was an American. 

From here we see Caine in the West, with occasional flashbacks to his training interspersed. Caine gets attacked in a saloon and manages to defend himself without hurting his attacker. He is invited to join a railroad work gang, which is comprised entirely of Chinese men. The Chinese men are treated poorly by the white supervisors, given bad food and no blankets to keep warm in the cold desert nights.  Only one of the white men seems to care about the Chinese men, warning that the hills they are about to blast through have pockets of gas which will explode and kill the Chinese men who are doing the blasting. Of course, he is soon brought back to camp having been killed in an "accident". The blasting goes forward and sure enough there's an explosion and workmen are killed.

The Chinese workmen have discovered that Caine is a fugitive wanted for murder in China. After the workmen decide to revolt the leader is shot down and Caine convinces the rest not to die needlessly. One of the workmen has ratted him out to the supervisors, who take him prisoner to turn over to representatives of the Chinese government. Caine escapes and engages in some light sabotage to keep more of the workmen from getting blown to smithereens. Three of the white men go out to hunt him down, and we see Caine in a freeze frame leaping on them. Their horses come back riderless, giving the impression that Caine has killed them. An old man is taken prisoner to force Caine to surrender himself again. During all of the preceding there have been flashbacks showing Caine's training and the relationship he had with one blind master in particular. In the final flashback we see this teacher get killed by the guards of a nephew of the emperor. In retaliation Caine kills the nephew.

Back in the "present" the old man attempts an escape and is shot. This causes Caine to freak out, and he takes out all of the guards. He arms the Chinese workers, and they take the white boss prisoner. After that a Chinese bounty hunter, who is also a Shaolin monk, arrives to take Caine into custody. They fight in what is obviously supposed to be the big action piece of the show, but is really pretty clunky and a little boring. Caine kills the other monk, sets fire to the railroad ties, and heads on his way.  Which brings me back to the perplexing thing about the show. When Caine is training he is taught that all life is sacred and you should try not to kill. When he kills the royal nephew he says he is dishonored. But he kills the 3 railroad men in the desert, and apparently has no remorse at all. Remember this is the 70's, when killing on t.v. was pretty rare. He also kills the monk, although he does at least seem to feel bad about this. 

For a t.v. movie this isn't bad. A couple of the shots, especially the opening and closing ones of Caine walking in the desert, are even cinematic looking. The training sequences are interesting and set up a lot of tropes for later western media dealing with eastern religion. For the most part it is well acted, and other than the climactic fight (which like I said was clunky and didn't seem that well choreographed) the actions scenes were decent. It did drag slightly in a couple of parts early on, which seems odd for a movie that's only and hour and 14 minutes. But overall it was pretty enjoyable. I had never seen an episode of the show before, and this has me looking forward to watching more.  In some ways it is very much of it's time (somehow it makes the Old West look like the 1970's) but in others it was ahead of its time. I was surprised, for instance, that an American t.v. show had the villains all be white guys and the hero and victims were Chinese. I look forward to seeing how much of that is retained in the series, as well as hoping they got a better fight coordinator. 


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