King King Fu: Monkey, Wrenched
"Toto, we're not in Kansas anymo– oh, wait."
King Kung Fu is painfully bad — in the few spots where it isn't grindingly slow and dull — and the great potential contained in the title for wacky Claymation-karate hijinks is never realized. (Or even attempted; the titular simian is portrayed by a guy in a gorilla suit that visibly dates from the silent-film era.) The few scenes in which the movie even remembers to include martial arts would not have threatened Bruce Lee's primacy in the genre; the writing is bad, the acting even worse, and the "special effects" require a different term to describe them, since they bear no relationship to either of the words in that phrase. But the movie isn't completely without merit.
That isn't to say that said merit is easy to discern. Written and directed with doomed enthusiasm by Lance D. Hayes, King Kung Fu is the story of a kung-fu-fighting gorilla, trained by a Chinese master, who escapes from the Wichita, KS zoo during a U.S. tour and terrorizes the local citizenry — with the exception of Rae Fay, who sympathizes with and befriends the big ape. (Probably. Hard to tell from Maxine Gray's acting, which is a really good rendition of "your friend's girlfriend who never talks, except to sigh about her compulsively strict lettuce-and-sunflower-seeds diet," but isn't much use here.) Meanwhile, Beau Bridges, Rae's oft-rebuffed suitor, engineers KKF's escape as a means to creating a news story — and leveraging that into a spot on the local TV-news team. The climax finds the Fu at the top of the Wichita Holiday Inn, beset by a stop-motion helicopter…you can fill in the blanks. It's the basic skeleton of King Kong, with a possible nod to Jeff Bridges's role in the 1976 remake, but where that film is a noble failure, this one is…you know. Not noble.
Beau is played, unsurprisingly, by Lance D. Hayes, who has what initially resembles decent comic timing, until you realize that every gag is telegraphed minutes in advance and/or arrives stillborn, despite the heroic efforts of the omnipresent slide whistle to goose everything from "punchlines" to bikini reveals to slo-mo. Roughly contemporary movies like The Kentucky Fried Movie or Airplane! understand that speed is of the essence; a lot of the jokes won't work, so you can't wait around to pronounce them on the table. You've got to keep moving, packing as many bits into a scene as you can so the audience doesn't linger on the ones that bomb. Hayes is not utterly unable to recognize what constitutes a good set piece in a parody film — and he does a decent turn as the sort of straight man this type of writing requires, although in this case "playing it straight" probably means "no range to do otherwise" — but there's so much air in the screenplay that even the sequences that threaten to work inevitably deflate. A promising sequence in which King Kung Fu flees to the Cowtown theme park, then participates in the Wild Bill shootout reenactment, gets a few adequate zingers out of the extras, but is cut at the speed of continental drift. Another segment featuring KKF facing off against an entire baseball team seems like it might shape up into something interesting, as the gorilla shows off his staff-fighting skills using a pair of Louisville Sluggers, but the scene goes on three times as long as it should, apparently for the sole purpose of showcasing a Howard Cosell imitation.
It doesn't sound funny, and it isn't; it's boring and dated. But it's the dated parts of King Kung Fu that invest it with its only consequence — as a movie, it's garbage, but as a cultural artifact or a time capsule, it's actually rather valuable. The sheriff is a guy named J.W. Duke, doing a John Wayne imitation so poor, only the repeated use of the word "pilgrim" indicates that it's supposed to be Wayne; Duke's police force inexplicably wears Evel Knievel-style stars-and-stripes helmets. Beau's sidekick Herman riffs on "me Tarzan, you Jane" with a weird crack about Nader's Raiders. A MacGuffin in the first act hinges on the success of a streaking expedition. Born in the early '70s, I don't really remember the dominance of these cultural references; I've only gleaned it from consuming the movies and TV of the time (see also: "bafflement at 'furrin' food"). But this is what people thought about thirty years ago. This is what they knew; this is how they understood the popular culture and their worlds. Herman's dream-sequence molester van, lime-green with wood paneling, is hilarious to audiences of the aughts because our tastes have evolved away from that type of garishness (and toward others, but that's another essay). But to see the shaggin' wagon presented, without distance or irony, as an aspiration, not just a dream but an American Dream, is worthwhile, because it tells us about our past, about what it was like then and what people wanted.
Before you blow that statement off as an oversubscription to King Kung Fu's props' enriching significance in an attempt to amortize the time I wasted watching the damn thing, remember: an entire movie about a dude who longed to own such a van, and his quest to achieve one, got made only a year after KKF. It's called The Van (…of course it is) and stars a fetal Danny DeVito in a tertiary role, and sadly I can report firsthand that it is as awful as you might assume, but along with KKF and Skatetown USA and C.B. Hustlers and other slapped-together crap of the era, it does have its place in film history — as drive-in fare. Roger Corman, the Avalon/Funicello oeuvre, various Black Lagoon pictures: we look at these movies now and wonder how audiences could have accepted such unsophisticated film-making. Who would pay to see these movies, we ask ourselves. Who would sit through an entire afternoon of Don Chaffey product, even if the triple feature only cost a quarter?
…People. All kinds of people. People did that. Kids. Drunks sleeping it off. Dudes cutting work. Everyone. The movies used to create an escape, an event, in a way they usually don't today; a Saturday-afternoon serial did its job just by existing. It didn't have to punch its weight against capital-L literature, and at drive-ins especially, the movie isn't for sitting and watching a story unfold. The movie is wallpaper; it's for having sex near, drinking beer in front of, going from car to car and socializing during. I have had sex at a drive-in, and quite frankly, neither of us really felt like it, but we couldn't stand one more stupid minute of My Best Friend's Wedding so we got naked in his dad's Cherokee as a defensive maneuver. Drive-ins have dwindled down to near-extinction over the last half century, but thirty, forty years ago, the same movies that go straight to DVD now, or serve as premium-cable innings-eaters at 2:30 in the morning, went up at the drive-in. Back in the day, you didn't have to make The Godfather; you just had to have a rudimentary plot, shoot it in focus, and fill 90 minutes. Nobody would have blinked twice at how shittily, say, Cool As Ice turned out if it had gone up at the drive-in, but because it got a "proper" release, we couldn't forgive it. And King Kung Fu is almost unforgivably bad — Rae Fay is in dire need of not only an acting teacher but a lip wax as well; Beau's last name should really be "Brummell," given the deafening array of sport coats he models during the film; there is a stop-motion hot-air-balloon chase, for Christ's sweet sake, and a driving-school "gag" that goes on for months, and Bruce, World's Strongest Man is everything I ever loathed about Micky Dolenz's epileptic slapstick on The Monkees.
But its badness has meaning, in the context of film history. Not much; just a noxious fume's worth, really. But meaning nonetheless.
Please visit the White Elephant Film Blogathon at Lucid Screening.com for more reviews of the most…"unappreciated" work the film world has to offer. Thanks for letting me participate, Ben Lim!
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