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DIRECTED BY: Steve Oedekerk
FEATURING: Steve Oedekerk, Jennifer Tung, Leo Lee
PLOT: The Chosen One, raised by rodents to become a talented martial artist, seeks revenge against the assassin who murdered his family when he was an infant.
COMMENTS: TV Tropes calls it a Gag Dub: take an existing film and record new dialogue to completely change the meaning of the film, ideally with amusing results. Comedy troupes from The Firesign Theater to the L.A. Connection have mined old movies for laughs, while more recently Bad Lip Reading and Brad Neely’s “Wizard People, Dear Reader” have conjured up demented versions of pop culture favorites. The Citizen Kane of such projects is certainly ’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, in which new dialogue turned a Japanese spy thriller into the hunt for the world’s best egg salad recipe.
Steve Oedekerk—the storytelling mastermind behind such box office smashes as the Ace Ventura movies, Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor films, and Patch Adams—decided that he had something to contribute to this proud tradition, grafting a new script onto the 1976Chinese martial arts flick Hu He Shuang Xing (Tiger & Crane Fists). Oedekerk adds a 21st century twist, however, inserting himself into the film through a combination of judicious editing, digital replacement, blue-screen insertion, and new footage featuring replicated sets and spot-on doubles for the original cast. That idea is the funniest thing about Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, and Oedekerk throws himself into the effort with gusto, gamely acting like a complete fool and enduring the indignities of both repeated punches and gushes of fluids in the pursuit of laughs. Beyond the initial concept, though, there aren’t many to be found.
The film certainly tries. Most of the characters have silly names, and groups of marching soldiers or fighters-in-training conduct inane conversations. Oedekerk does nearly all the voices, usually with an exaggerated accent as the entire joke: the narrator speaks with a Chicano vocal fry, a street vendor screams like Dick Vitale, henchmen range from Southern hick to, and the leading lady sounds like a bad impression of Miss Piggy and ends nearly every sentence with an off-putting “wee-oo-wee” noise. Meanwhile, random Easter eggs are thrown in for good measure, from a whale to a CGI alien to the RMS Titanic. It’s the kind of humor you would call “sophomoric,” only because there’s no word for freshman-level comedy. Or lower.
Every now and then, Oedekerk hits on an amusing idea, like a boombox-toting henchman whose tastes run from late-90s hip-hop to the glurgy ballad “The Morning After,” or a pair of speaking characters who never open their mouths but sing about their jobs as ventriloquists. But more often, Kung Pow is not content to let the joke speak for itself. For example, we could probably surmise that Oedekerk is going to fashion a set of nunchucks out of a pair of gophers, but the dialogue gives us a full play-by-play, refusing to leave it to chance that we’ll get it. Similarly amusing is a run of characters who have a touching dying moment only to be revealed as not quite dead—but once the joke is told, the scenes go on, stretching to fill time.
Redubbed wuxia gets the audience in the seats, but Oedekerk doesn’t really have a plan after that. Rather than subverting the usual themes of the genre, Kung Pow adopts them with a plot centered around revenge for wrongs done long ago. The characters become clownish, but their stunts and expressions keep their original context. So after a while, Oedekerk has to invent other things to happen, culminating in a lengthy milk-drenched battle with a CGI cow that includes two separate parodies of The Matrix.
A central problem is Oedekerk himself. A fairly bland actor on his face (he looks like a blend of Ben Stiller and Scott Bakula), he becomes something else as the Caucasian hero in a film whose Chinese cast is turned into buffoons. He has no independent personality or history with an audience, so by literally replacing the hero with himself, he unwittingly strolls into a minefield of cultural appropriation. Kung Pow may not be actively offensive, but it definitely has issues to deal with.
Kung Pow is actually a technical marvel, with roughly half of the movie consisting of new scenes slotted into the original film seamlessly. But those skills are being applied to 3rd-grade-level jokes, which makes you wonder if you wouldn’t be better off just watching Tiger & Crane Fists. Part of the appeal of the Gag Dub is that the biggest part of the job—making the actual movie—has already been done. Kung Pow demonstrates that you still have to do the hard work of comedy in order for your new thing to stand on its own.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…there’s a raft of unfunny Matrix references and an ongoing battle to see who can perform the most bizarrely inappropriate dubbing job. It’s incongruously humorous to see the off-kilter lip-synching that dazzles the funnybone in some of those old Shaw Brothers’ semi-epics of the mid-Seventies that spawned the whole Hong Kong chopsocky market, chiefly because the erratic dubbing and clueless subtitles were unintentional mistakes. Parodying those golden moments successfully, however, is virtually impossible to do, as Oedekerk proves throughout this film’s 81-minute runtime.” – Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Andrew. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)