Kwai Chang Caine R.I.P.

While I could appreciate where Quentin Tarantino was coming from with Kill Bill and the ways he dutifully pays homage to old school pop culture icons, there were a couple of reasons that movie did not resonate with me. One, protracted and pyrotechnically-proficient fight scenes aside (for the record, Uma Thurman’s womano a womano brawls with Vivica A. Fox and Daryl Hannah were quite satisfactory; the over-the-top and ludicrous fight vs. the Crazy 88s not so much), it was a pretty medicore flick. Both of them. (But more on Tarantino’s general post Pulp Fiction irrelevance another time.) Two, for people of my generation, it simply wasn’t all that cool to see the great David Carradine ostensibly ressurected as Bill; sure, he had sauntered out of the limelight, but he did not seem particularly anxious to stroll back into it. In other words, his role was not the type of career-saving reclamation project as it applied to, say, John Travolta and Bruce Willis circa 1994. Carradine was what he was: an old school legend who had been there, done that. He was Kwai Chang Caine for Christ’s sake.

Anyone who hesitates for a single second, or even has to ask who that is, will be unable to understand why cats of my ilk (kids of the ’70s) identify Carradine with the role he was born to play: Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu. (Of course, this immortal, if somewhat short-lived TV show was namechecked not only in Office Space, but in the aforementioned Pulp Fiction, which in hindsight seems like an appropriately reverential bit of foreshadowing on Tarantino’s part.)

I can’t say I’ve watched a single episode of Kung Fu since the early ’80s when it was syndicated on Saturday afternoons, just after Soul Train and just before Soccer Made in Germany. This was sacred stuff for me and my Pops: we hunkered down and got it on. And just thinking back, for the first time it occurs to me, thank God America was so much more of a melting pot in those days. Soul Train, Soccer Made in Germany and Kung Fu? That’s some serious, if appropriated, cultural import right there. And the point is, it wasn’t self-conscious or anything we were even cognizant of; it just was. I say this with a nostalgic twinkle in my eye, considering my understanding (and appreciation) of these shows might have been a tad different if, for instance, I had any clue what those cool sing-song chants the large crowds were singing (in German) actually meant, or the act that most of these hip dance moves were approximating. But even then, I knew it was a stretch, at best, and awkward, at worst, that in the Kung Fu show, Carradine was (of course) supposed to be half-Chinese, leading to many of the bigoted taunts his character suffered. It certainly strained credulity on one hand, but also tended to make the portrayal that much more human. Credit Carradine for managing to pull that off. Mostly, this was righteous Shaolin shit, and it was of its time (’70s) and I was its ideal target audience: a young Catholic who heard priests talk the talk each Sunday but appreciated seeing the message carried out, albeit funneled through a pseudo-mystic far-East-via-Hollywood filter. Kwai Chang Caine walked the walk.

For more time than I’d care to consider, I’ve settled into the age where it’s inevitable to see several of my childhood heroes pass on each year: it’s been an especially painful twelve months for me, with Rick Wright, Mitch Mitchell, Freddie Hubbard and John Cephas all leaving us behind. There will be many more just around the corner, and it won’t be too long before real significant voices of my generation (no conjecture necessary; suffice it to say, they too will die someday) start passing on. For me, Carradine’s departure is not as immediately affecting, since he is inextricably linked to my childhood, and for better or worse, I put childish things behind me quite some time ago. (In other words, I mourned this man and that era long before he had his last splash in the celluloid sun, courtesy of Quentin Tarantino.) As always, the silver lining in these losses is that while the man might be gone, the character -- in this case, Kwai Chang Caine -- will remain a part of me until the unavoidable day my own reality show is cancelled.

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