New 'Kung Fu' offers taste of '70s chops, hooey

January 27, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

The best line of "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues" comes early tonight, when a Chinatown tough snarls at Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine), "Where'd you get that? Out of a fortune cookie?"

The martial arts master, of course, has just spouted another incomprehensible nugget of Shaolin philosophy, as he often did in the 1972-75 ABC series. This new syndicated sequel to the Wild West original brings the action forward to urban 1993, and again stars Mr. Carradine as the mysterious do-gooder Kwai Chang Caine. (It premieres with a movie at 9 p.m. on WNUV,

Channel 54).

The fortune cookie provides a perfect metaphor for the appeal of the series, then and now. The cookie and the series alike offer only the barest, Americanized taste of the intriguing East.

But you can't forget the kung fu fighting. We see lots of it in both slow motion and real-time. For a show that supposedly espouses a peaceful approach to life, the level of violence is high.

Mr. Carradine, who said in a recent interview that he never stopped the practice of kung fu after the demise of the original show, has put on weight, but he still has believable moves.

His dialogue is just as cryptic, he wears the same clothes and, as we first see him tonight strolling down a woodsy path, he still plays the flute.

So how does the 1993 Kwai Chang Caine relate to the Chinese-American wanderer in the Old West of the original show? The sequel suggests that the 1993 Caine is the grandson of the original, but it remains a little coy.

He seems to have some of the same flashback memories of the previous series, to when he was a young student nicknamed "Grasshopper." Further, Mr. Carradine has suggested "he's the same guy" somehow transported through time.

Regardless, flashbacks appear in the new show about as often as kung fu conflict, and not just to Kwai Chang. A new character (Chris Potter) remembers his own past as a Shaolin apprentice to his father, and viewers will have no difficulty predicting that the old Caine will find a son in the sequel.

Tonight's premier plot has both Caines separately combating a murderous protection racket in Chinatown run by an old adversary, a renegade kung fu master. (The location setting is actually Toronto's Chinatown.)

An interesting sub-theme underlies the premiere, as the worst villains come across as Chinese-heritage thugs who have completely lost their traditions in the assimilated crush of urban life.

Longtime TV actor Robert Lansing (remember "12 O'Clock High"?) turns up as a police captain, and Eastern actor Kim Chan is Caine's new spiritual guide, a wispy-whiskered apothecary, the Ancient.

Will all of this find an audience in the modern TV firmament? It depends on how many fans of the old show find a satisfying connection to the original "Kung Fu." The sequel offers the same sort of hooey.

But then again, fortune cookies are kind of fun to read, aren't they?

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