Continuing in the tradition of “Airplane!” and the “Naked Gun” series (but thankfully not starring Leslie Nielsen), “Kung Phooey” takes the conventions of the spoof genre a step further by also lampooning Hollywood’s tradition of typecasting. The result is a surprisingly humorous mix of chop socky parody and riffs on the role of the Asian actor in cinema.
Writer/director/producer Darryl Fong has plenty of experience in that arena. His decision to make “Kung Phooey” can be viewed as a direct result of being cast as an Asian heavy in films like “Midnight Man.” After several years of encountering casting stereotypes, Fong decided that the time was ripe for a send-up of, among other things, the elderly Chinese man who always seems to be bowing and scraping, the scheming dragon lady, and the stoic martial arts master. Along the way, he also manages to skewer “Citizen Kane,” the “Kung Fu” TV series, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and a slew of Bruce Lee and Hong Kong action movies.
“Kung Phooey” tells the tale of Art Chew (yes, the sneeze joke does get used a few times more than necessary), a monk sent to the United States to retrieve the ancient peach that was stolen from the Shir Li Temple, where it had been kept for centuries. Chew arrives in Vancouver, BC (actually San Francisco’s Chinatown…it’s a long story) and meets up with Waymon (Fong) and Roy Lee (Colman Domingo) – actually Leroy, a black guy who thinks he’s Chinese. From there he’s introduced to Waymon’s Uncle Wong (Wallace Choy) who, per the rules of Asian movie casting, owns a restaurant. Wong is also being shaken down by thugs in the employ of Helen Hu (Joyce Thi Brew), the evil proprietress of a competing establishment. As luck would have it, her restaurant is also the last known resting place of the sacred peach, and it’s up to Chew and his friends to get it back.
There’s much to like about “Kung Phooey.” Fong never lets the fact that he’s tackling the fairly weighty issue of race in Hollywood get in the way of some fast and loose comedy. No kung fu movie standard is left unmolested; from the brutal Japanese-style torture (actually karaoke) of the heroine, Sue Shee (Karena Davis), to the Jean-Claude Van Damme character, who is unable to fight with his pants on and does the splits at the most inopportune of moments.
Like most of its ilk, “Kung Phooey” doesn’t always hit the mark (and I would’ve liked to see more of Sue Shee, if you know what I’m saying) but it succeeds more often than not. Anyone who can remember wasting Saturday afternoons watching “Kung Fu Theater” or practicing Bruce Lee’s poses from “Enter the Dragon” would do well to check it out, if only do learn the answer to the ancient question, “How do you make a Mandarin duck?”