The 80s have become the source of a fair amount of nostalgia recently, from Super 8 to Stranger Things (on my to-do list to cover), but I want to highlight something in particular that took off like wildfire on Youtube. Kung Fury. 25 million hits and counting.
In its way, Kung Fury can be seen for the 80s action genre what Young Frankenstein was for classic Universal horror movies (Gene Wilder RIP). Both a parody and an homage, but done with an eye towards stylistic authenticity.
From a GenerationX perspective, though, the two are different in one key area. I’m old enough to have lived through the 80s. I didn’t live through the 30s. So when I see something like this, I’m able to compare it to how it really was vs. how it’s being regurgitated here.
David Sandberg is the man behind Kung Fury. The most important thing to know about him is his age. He’s 30, and I’m 46. So he was only born right around the time films like this were being produced. I think there’s a clear difference of perspective in GenerationX vs. GenerationY and later, and it mostly has to do with our relationship with violence.
To GenerationX, our first exposure to violence in entertainment was Jaws. This was mostly an unseen threat, and remember that Jaws was originally rated R. Films like the original Friday the 13th were considered extremely dangerous. People saw them, but it was almost like carrying out a dare, like doing an extreme sport. Graphic violence was very tightly controlled and compartmentalized. Pay cable and home video only really came around in the early 80s when I was already a teenager, and not everyone could afford these initially. Prior to that, strict standards and practices had limited violence on television. That’s why, for instance, The Superfriends conflicts were so anemic, especially the early iteration with Wendy and Marvin, and why so many Saturday Morning cartoons adopted a whodunit formula, since it was non-violent.
Videogames were mostly about abstract icons shooting little rectangles at other abstract icons. It was highly impersonal. But yes, in the 80s the violent quotient began to go up, thanks to the action stars that are now nostalgia stars in the Expendables franchise.
The 80s were the time when parents began to backlash against the violence (or satanic music) but in retrospect, what they were complaining about was pretty tame by today’s standards. They claimed it was a slippery slope, and maybe now it’s time to admit that they were right.
A big inflection point happened in videogames with Mortal Kombat in 1992. This was the year I graduated from college, BTW. I remember when this game came out and I was shocked that such a game could become mainstream. The main attraction of this game was the fatalities. Probably more than anything else, this game signaled a watershed in the way kids related to entertainment. In the Superfriends, conflict was often resolved through diplomacy and breaking through misunderstandings. Here’s a perfect example of the ultra-pacifistic leanings of early Superfriends, with Plastic-Man expressing fear of hurting a mouse.
Even as a kid I realized how over-the-top the avoidance of conflict and violence was, and yes it was silly, and yet in retrospect I kind of appreciate the good intentions of the powers that be at the time to help socially engineer compassionate adults through this kind of toothless entertainment.
In contrast, once we get to Mortal Kombat, within the constraints of a game, only lethal force mattered, and the “payoff” for winning was a graphic fatality. By this point I was 22, and feeling the first pangs of generation-gap while the next generation were lapping this up like it was perfectly normal.
The early 90s were also the period when Quentin Tarantino got his start. Reservoir Dogs took the level of violence from Sergio Leone and The Godfather and upped it another notch.
Tarantino has always tried to have it both ways, seeming to glorify violence while also injecting a little bit of moral payback to compensate, best exemplified in Pulp Fiction in the way Samuel L Jackson’s character decides to repent for his sins, whereas Travolta’s character doubles-down and pays the ultimate karmic price.
One of Tarantino’s buddies was Robert Rodriguez. Unlike Tarantino, Rodriguez didn’t seem to have much of a loftier message to his work other than racking up bodycounts in a stylish way.
One of his more grisly pictures was Once Upon a Time in Mexico which featured characters getting their eyes gouged out. Johnny Depp’s character then turns into a “blind” gunfighter. You can see how the only saving grace is an attempt to kind of shift things more and more into black comedy, if you find this kind of thing “funny”. I don’t.
Then you get to people like Zach Snyder, who has now been given control over the DC Universe. He then proceeded to turn Superman into a killer. It’s really at this point where the philosophical divergence of GenerationX’s post-hippie innocence vs. Gen-Y and later’s nihilism and acceptance of violence reaches its apex.
As a point of comparison, here is the mild way Zod and company were neutralized in Superman II. In the extended cut the police actually haul them away (depowered) from the fortress of solitude.
And here is how Zod is neutralized in Man of Steel, complete with desaturated color-grading and Superman’s darkened suit colors.
The philosophical conclusion Zach Snyder’s come to, and using Superman as his mouthpiece, is therefore this gem of post-911 optimism:
This is disturbing in the way it alters an icon, but at least Superman is allowed to be a little down in the dumps over having been soul-crushed into a Debbie Downer. What’s more disturbing is the sense of perverse glee/humor associated with this scene from KickAss. Now the R-rated language and ultra-violence is coming out of a very young actress, and the film asks us to laugh or fist-pump. And all this to the strains of a GenX song (The Banana Splits Theme).
Matthew Vaughn, the same genius that made Kick Ass went on to make The Kingsman, pretty much the same schtick in a new bottle. Here’s basically the same music video style fight-scene transposed to a church with Freebird taking the place of the Banana Splits scene.
Ironically, Samuel L Jackson is also in this film. Vaughn is clearly a Tarantino acolyte.
The comments under this, in true Youtube fashion, make you weep for the future of the human race. In an era of chronic mass-shootings, you get this:
This was just like Kickass. I started watching it thinking “Oh this is some mellow kind of light hearted, slightly cynical film” and then this scene makes the whole movie.
I’m not even going to back-track and cover the progression of violence in videogames since Mortal Kombat. But you can easily think of the milestones. Grand Theft Audio, various Call of Duty style games which model infantry warfare more and more realistically.
Let’s go back to Kung Fury, though. I want to focus on how David Sandberg (and the fans who love that film) view violence differently enough that the film itself is actually not authentic to the 80s. The film has graphic exploding bodyparts in it that were rarely seen in 80s films outside of Scanners or the opening scene in Robocop. The exploding heads in Scanners were, again, a “big deal” at the time. If you were a kid and you saw that movie you had somehow scaled Mount Everest and lived to tell about it. And I felt positively traumatized by the scene in Robocop. It was truly awful and I was 17 at the time. What else could you compare it to? The melting heads in Raiders which looked just as waxy as they were made of? The jiggling corpses in Poltergeist? Not quite the same thing, really, and again, these were few and far between.
These days, however, kids have already seen so much of this sort of thing that it has no impact. It is, in effect, the equivalent of slapstick or splatter-ballet. That’s how it’s treated in The Kingsman. And that’s fine if we were not simultaneously suffering from an epidemic of real-life gun violence that didn’t exist in the 80s. I’d like to not draw a connection between the two, but I can’t help but do so.
I am not saying that the 80s movies that Kung Fury spoofs were high art. They were kind of the ground floor of desensitizing ourselves to this extent, but back then not everything was violence for the sake of seeing blood splatter. They were also trying to tell a story with characters. Characters with feelings. Characters with something to say.
This is the 80s too. After watching this progression from tame 70s cartoons to photo-realistic but cartoonily presented splatterhouse, watch this scene straight through without fast-forwarding and let me know how it compares.
Yes, it’s Rambo, poster-child of the glorification of violence, and yet, despite it all, this is how soldiers who had to kill in cold blood really feel for having taken lives, what it does to them, the PTSD, the moral dilemmas, the internal wounding, the alienation. Rambo’s character arc is similar to Mad Max, that in order to be a hero, to be willing to kill, you have to harden yourself. But at least they started out appreciating the value of a human life. This is far different from the casual perspective of a generation who have grown up thinking that killing is just a funny little game.
Too few filmmakers these days concern themselves with such trivial matters as feelings. Instead they focus on the visceral. The FX, the spectacle, the kinetic movement, and that’s why it’s a slippery slope where you need to keep upping the explosions and the body count and yet you feel nothing because you’ve been given no reason to care about the characters.
How many spectacles have we had like that recently? The latest 300 sequel? Gods of Egypt? The Ben Hur remake? The Transformers movie du jour?
Kung Fury is an achievement on many levels, but when it comes to standing up characters and making the audience give a crap about them, it’s as useless as a videogame. And the biggest tragedy is that to a lot of people, that simply doesn’t seem to matter anymore, hence why I’m OVER THE HILL reviewer and such people who disagree don’t belong on my lawn.
In future posts I will cover violence some more and highlight some recent film or TV that features a healthier perspective.