At first glance on Kung Fu Killer's artwork, the target audience is tremendously clear: fans of David Carradine's Caine character from "Kung Fu" and "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues", as well as fledgling enthusiasts of post-Kill Bill Daryl Hannah. Underneath the star power lies a low-brow, moderately budgeted B-movie revenge flick, packed with expanses of tedious storytelling and line delivery specifically crafted to bring Carradine's signature demeanor to the spotlight. Kung Fu Killer becomes the story of a Quai Chang Caine-esque character on a bloodthirsty rampage through '20s Shanghai; this TV-episode wannabe becomes brain-dead fun when it focuses on its digest-and-forget choreography sequences, but it clumsily falls apart and wears on the nerves when it dabbles in any of its numerous irksome sub-plots.
Carradine plays Crane, a martial arts monk who has returned to his temple to help in instructing people after "walking the earth" for many years. After a large number of his temple's denizens are viciously slain by the strong-arm forces of a militant, drug-driving overlord, Crane decides to retaliate where it hurts: in the middle of his operation in upper-scale Shanghai, where the boss has himself holed up in a cushy situation -- influence in the nightclub-fueled town, lavish meals at his beck and call, and chemical research in his headquarters' basement. Together with a good-natured lounge singer (Daryl Hannah, Splash) who desires nothing more than to see her brother, Crane seeks a way to worm into his infrastructure and dissect it from the inside to ensnare his revenge.
Plain and simple, Kung Fu Killer doesn't follow your typical "Monks Take Manhattan" type of storyline where the virtue and values of the martial arts condition might dilute Crane's vengeful actions. Instead, it's about watching him inflict painful revenge on his temple's aggressors, all with a load of half-postured, blood-drenched choreography scattered through kitschy period-esque theatrics. Carradine absolutely carries the picture on his back, offering stings of interest through his facial mannerisms and flowing fighting style. And he's great, for the most part, giving his avid fans enough of his signature panache to satisfy. He even gets the chance to flash several of those uber-classy head-tilt-and-squint moments during tense conversations, which should get a rise regardless.
But plot-wise, Kung Fu Killer is built solely around the prospect of seeing David Carradine crack skulls in a vintage suit, with nothing else solid to focus on outside of his semi-undercover charisma. Sure, the writers try to throw a few sub-plots into the mix for enticement's sake, including a potential disciple for Crane's technique and an ominous chemical research lab, yet they just serve to water down and divert attention from the flick's core focus: a gratuitous hunger for revenge. Plus, some gaps in logic are beyond grain-of-salt levels, something instantly noticeable once you see how quickly a cowardly, untalented disciple of Crane's -- who plays dead during the beginning massacre -- suddenly becomes this quick-fisted inspiration. Shaw Brothers' classics teach you to periodically toss aside logic for the sake of absorbing ass-kicking for ass-kicking sake, but there's still a line that they skated along gracefully -- one that this Carradine vehicle struggles to do.
Even the fighting and fireworks are sort of bland -- not bad, but bland -- in Kung Fu Killer, orchestrated in a way that shows both competence and dullness in the low-budget production and post-prod values. It's slickly-shot and edited, splicing in focal frames that tie into specific scenes (girl with a bow and arrow, broken wrists, etc) in a way that gives them a lot more energy and weight than they should have. However, you get the chance to see a few decapitations, organ spills, and splashes of blood, all of which are handled to unnecessarily stuffy levels that trickle over into the land of excess. It's a hodge-podge experience in brawler cinema, kind of like throwing a handful of bright colors into a cup with the hopes of making an attention-grabber of a hue -- which, instead, becomes a gray, bland vat of wasted garishness. Come to Kung Fu Killer for David Carradine if you must, but don't expect anything outside of a sluggish collage of carnage surrounding him.
Video and Audio:
Bland, foggy, and digitally unclean, Kung Fu Killer isn't a visual treat with its 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Color saturation is handled fine, but detail and contrast rendering are both a wreck. Instances of ghosting and excessive aliasing could be spotted throughout, which makes it look like you're watching the film through the eyes of a drunken kung-fu lover when blended with the shaky-camera work utilized in the film. Some scenes still a little closer to fine detail and composition -- mostly the shots captured during daylight, instead of the smoky nightclubs -- but Kung Fu Killer exists mainly in its keynote atmosphere, which results in a murky mess.
Audio doesn't do the film any favors either, captured in a static and uninspiring Dolby Stereo track. Sound effects are muffled and hollow, while vocal clarity gets to be pretty shaky throughout. The score tends to take over and exhibit the most clarity, but part of the experience should be in relishing in the thuds, splashes, and bone-crunching snaps -- which all sound like they've been sent through a tin can connected to a string. No subtitles or alternate languages are available on this bare-bones, English-bound disc.
David Carradine enthusiasts will find a reason to look into Kung Fu Killer, as his signature persona -- that of the semi sage-like martial arts master -- gets a strong workout amid some marginally-engrossing battle sequences. Everything else, from tone and narrative structure to line delivery, only exists as a rickety framework to momentarily hoist up the "Kung Fu" star's persona within a suit-laden blur of budget-priced period bloodspilling. This one's a hard one to diagnose; it might be worth a rental for the die-hards out there starved for new Carradine and new fight sequences, but the overall package is one that should be skipped due to the lackluster digital presentation of a bland, merely digestible martial arts flick. Still, if you're reading this review, then you're probably mostly intrigued by David Carradine. Gauged solely on that, Kung Fu Killer is worth a Rental for those momentary successes in crimson-stained kung-fu blasts draping the charisma exhibited by its lead actor -- and nothing more.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site