Monday, June 8, 2009

Raised By Caine

David Carradine couldn't kick for shit. His blocks and strikes were slow and predictable. Like Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack, Carradine required a double for more complicated techniques. Of those who made martial arts mainstream in the US, Carradine was perhaps the least proficient. And yet "Kung Fu" remains an American pop classic, establishing the fighting form's name in the national vocabulary.

For me, KF was heaven sent. Beaten up by bigger, sadistic classmates, I needed some kind of lifeline, anything to grab onto and shape to my advantage. Watching KF on Saturday nights fed my desire to learn to fight back (as did Bruce Lee's films). My first teacher, a stern Korean black belt who berated and pushed the class mercilessly, steadily built my confidence, knocking me back down whenever I thought I had certain moves mastered. I trained daily, and in a few months was stronger, faster, able to hold my own with larger opponents.

Through it all, "Kung Fu" served as inspiration.

Back then, martial arts were considered exotic and strange by many people, some of whom thought it was a "trick" or sleight of hand. This made it all the more appealing to me. And while I rarely had to use my skills in real life, watching Carradine's Caine kick redneck bigot ass on a weekly basis satisfied my vengeful appetite. A small circle of like-minded friends formed a karate club at school, mocked by jocks who watched us spar, until a couple of them bit the mat after taking a few of us on. We were more or less left alone after that.

So when I think of David Carradine, that's what first pops up. His image and my reality were intertwined, and whenever I caught him later in life, his serene, hippie-ish demeanor made me smile.

Of course, Carradine was more than just a Shaolin monk in the Old West. He worked with Scorsese, Bergman, Ashby, and Tarantino, the latter of whom was clearly as taken with KF as was I. Indeed, of all Tarantino's nostalgic hires, Carradine was doubtless his best catch, far more natural with Tarantino's dialogue than John Travolta, Pam Grier, or Robert Forster (Sonny Chiba may be the one exception). Carradine's speeches in "Kill Bill: Volume 2" would sound strained coming from Travolta; and as overwritten as those speeches are, Carradine caressed Tarantino's words with patience and humor. While everyone else performed cartoonishly (most especially Darryl Hannah), Carradine seemed to float through the film, giving it whatever balance it has.

David Carradine understood and accepted his KF persona, playing with and exploiting it to his advantage years after the show ended. The lurid circumstances surrounding his death will do nothing to alter this. Hell, had Carradine survived it, he'd find a way to milk it, his relaxed expression putting one at ease while acknowledging the absurdity. Sleep well, grasshopper.