As one of David Carradine's last few films to gain wide release prior to his death, it was with some reserve that I - an uninitiated fan to the "Kung Fu" hero's work - put the DVD into my player and gave it a watch, well aware that this was a TV production (although you have to admit that, for a moment, the cover looked like a Dragon Dynasty release). One day later, I'm still not sure how much I like the movie, but I can say with certainty that even at age 72 and on a limited budget, Carradine was capable of giving the likes of Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme a run for their money.
The story: set in the mid `30s, White Crane (Carradine, Kill Bill - Volume Two) is a caucasian master at a Wudang martial arts school that's attacked by the forces of the ruthless underground gangster/warlord Khan (Kay Tong Lim, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story). Left for dead, Crane barely escapes with his life but vows revenge -submerging himself into the Shanghai crime scene in search of Khan. On his quest, he's aided by one of Khan's disillusioned lieutenants (James Taenaka) and an American cabaret songstress (Daryl Hannah, Splash, "Kill Bill") searching for her kidnapped brother.
I don't have nearly enough experience in wuxia cinema to be specific, but without a doubt, there is plenty of inspiration and nods to the golden age of kung fu films, particularly in story structure, motifs, and the insane level of violence. Indeed, if nothing else, "Kung Fu Killer" lives up to its title for the sheer amount of agony Carradine causes: within the first three minutes of the movie, he's snapped plenty of arms, lopped off many a limb, and even punched a man so hard in the chest that his spine is pushed out of his back (!). By all means, this film pushes the boundaries of television and is certainly not for the squeamish for all of the visceral carnage it has to offer, presented via six fights throughout the movie. With that being said, the hand-to-hand battles really are a mixed bag: though commendable for his minimal use of a stunt double, Carradine looks rather slow on more than one occasion, and despite the liberal bloodletting, only about half of his fights are actually good, with the lazy swordfight of the finale being the definite lowpoint. Luckily, "Killer" introduces us to a budding talent in Osric Chau, a 22-year-old student of Crane's whose three fast-paced, technical fights steal the show.
When the action dies down, the movie goes into noir mode, with Carradine walking the sin-ridden streets of Shanghai in a suit and top hat, sniffing out betrayals feigning allegiances to get closer to his target. Director Philip Spink (Voyage of the Unicorn) does a darn fine job of presenting the interracially tense atmosphere of coastal China at the time, and for the most part, the cast holds up decently; I thought that Darryl Hannah's role could've been cast better but her singing kind of pulls its own weight, while Carradine lisps his way through his role but is nonetheless redeemed by his commanding screen presence - quite the equal to that of the title character in "Kill Bill" (contrary to the IMDb entry, however, he does not play the flute in this film). On a low note, I thought the film had some problems with pacing: though running at a standard 93 minutes, I felt that the story should've been given more time to build and the characters more room to expand, so the final battle would feel a bit less anticlimactic.
As a side note, the great Pei-Pei Cheng (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) makes a cameo early on in the film - perhaps putting a bit of an exclamation point on how above-average the film has managed to be. While I'm still not a huge fan of the flick, its quality is more than apparent; while I have a feeling that newcomers to the late Carradine's work should start somewhere else, I don't think too many established fans will want to be without this one.