Martial Arts in Media 12/11

I’ve been busy. You know, what with making lists, checking ‘em twice, etc. So, although there’re a fistful of new kung fu and kung fu related films out on DVD, (including one I’m in!) I won’t be able to get to them until 2012 (yes, that’s how busy I am finding out who’s naughty or nice).

But Kung Fu Panda 2, once sub-known as The Kaboom of Doom, is freshly out on DVD, so now’s as good a time as any to reconsider it. Yes, I know, I reviewed it elsewhere on this site when it first came out in May, but then I was being nice. Now? It’s naughty time.

Since then, it has festered in my memory, getting more disappointing the more I thought about it. Add to that the clear superiority of the subsequent Nickelodeon TV series, and I get a free pass for this edition of my ex-Asian Cult Cinema/Inside Kung Fu column.

The look of Kung Fu Panda 2 is glorious. The story, despite the story boss of the original film, Jennifer Yuh, being promoted to director of #2, is so intrinsically flawed that the movie should have been called Taekwondo Panda. That’s also a hint of how simply wrong the kung fu was in the film. It’s defined wrong, presented wrong, executed wrong, and even concluded wrong.

Some of the following scree is repeated from my original review, only now with more vitriol. First, Shifu tells Po the Panda that he has to defeat a weapon that could destroy kung fu. Wrong. No weapon can destroy kung fu, because kung fu is a self-improvement system, not a (literally and figuratively) physical thing that can be shot, stabbed, blown up, or even death-rayed.

Second, Shifu tells Po that the only way to find the power to destroy the weapon is to find “inner peace,” which the film then manifests into Po accomplishing that by finding his real parents. Wrong. You don’t find inner peace by finding your parents. You find inner peace by “finding” (i.e., understanding, improving, and justifiably loving) yourself.

Third, this sequel is the Forbidden Kingdom of fighting. That legendarily bad missed opportunity had the three greatest kung fu film minds in the world – Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Yuen Wo-ping – but didn’t allow them to do a lick of kung fu on screen. Here, Yuh and company dwell on the same hipless, muscle-and-anger-driven straight punches and kicks that are the stock and trade of tunnel-visioned martial art students, not kung fu students (further represented by the voice presense of Jean Claude Van Damme, who not only has never been in a kung fu film, but, arguably, has never really made a great martial art movie either).

Fourth, once Po and company actually face the “weapon that could destroy kung fu” – a mere, albeit ornately decorated, cannon, they do the one thing no kung fu student would ever do. They stand in front of it. Firstly (within this fourthly) any kung fu student knows that you don’t fight the gun, you fight the person holding the gun. Secondly-fourthly, the “A” in the “ABCs of Fighting” (created by world heavyweight champion Stephe Watson), is “avoid.” Someone is pointing a cannon at you? Step aside (“B” is balance, “C” is counter-attack, btw).

Fifth, there’s the “skadoosh.” Not knowing (and, more sadly, not wanting to know) kung fu, Yuh and company apparently assumed Po said “skadoosh” in the first film because he was about to destroy the villain. But, in actuality, the “skadoosh” was the verbal representation of Po’s evolution. That’s what the highest form of external, martial-applied kung fu is: taking your teacher’s education, then personalizing, extrapolating, and developing your own improvements upon it.

That’s why Po suddenly knew the wuxi finger hold at the end of the original. Or, as he put it just before the skadoosh, “I figured it out.” In the sequel, however, it’s lobbed in awkwardly after Po wastes some time, Shaolin Soccer style, catching and throwing back cannon balls. He finally mutters it when he is able to throw the cannonball back exactly where it came from.

Again, this is the last thing a true kung fu student would do. What could have been a wonderful sequence of Po dodging, ducking, confusing, misdirecting, and driving the cannon users crazy is just another straight-armed, stiff-legged representation of the filmmakers unwillingness to understand kung fu … or even the lessons of the first film. As with so many who embrace “standard operating ignorance,” they want kung fu to be about what America has always been about: excellence of aim, not excellence of self.

But we’re left with the question of the skadoosh. As a representation of the evolving of the student, it should have come after Po did the highest form of complete kung fu: making your enemy your friend. Spoiler-alertingly, the peacock villain, Lord Shen, is killed when his own cannon falls back on him. Lame. What should have happened is that Po would have pulled him out of harm’s way. And when the villain asks “Why did you do that for me?” Po should have answered, “I didn’t do it for you. I did it for me. Skadoosh.”

But it’s all moot, anyway, since these kung fu fallicies are not the worst thing about Kung Fu Panda 2, egregious though they are. The worst thing is that Yuh and company betray their own story by establishing early on, spoiler-alertingly 2, that Lord Shen killed Po’s real parents, then revealing just before the credits (and after a “heartwarming” re-acceptance of Po’s noodle shop goose dad) that Shen DID NOT kill Po’s parents. Therefore both the story and the plot are not just wrong, but pointless.

Tae Kwon Do Panda, I mean, Kung Fu Panda 2 is pretty, fast-moving, action-packed, and earnest. It is also a pale reflection of what it could, or should, have been. The Nickelodeon TV series — Kung Fu Panda Legends of Awesomeness — is far superior in wit, wisdom, and, of course, kung fu.

Besides, KFP2TKoD, isn’t that funny. Not only does Yuh and company eschew kung fu for ultimately meaningless heart, they avoid real humor too. No skadoosh for you.