On May 28, 2015, a half-hour parody of bad '80s action movies hit YouTube. By June 1, it had racked up more than 10 million views.
For the uninitiated, the short film seemed to have come out of nowhere. In actuality, it was the culmination of a massive Kickstarter campaign that had earned over $600,000. The film had played in the Cannes Film Festival earlier in May. And it had been eagerly anticipated by fans who were revved up by its YouTube channel, something called Laser Unicorns.
However, divorced from the excitement surrounding the project, the short film can seem a little odd, hammering one joke into the ground over and over. Why, exactly, has this project taken the internet by storm? And just what is it trying to say beyond "Movies from the '80s were pretty crazy!"?
That's what we're here for. Welcome to "Kung Fury."
Whoa. What is "Kung Fury"?
You could just as easily ask, "Who is Kung Fury?" for the name of the short film is also the name of its main character, a humble police officer from "Miami 1985." Through a series of strange events, he becomes a superpowered kung fu cop who travels through time to defeat Adolf Hitler (who wants to become the Kung Fuhrer, of course). Also, there are dinosaurs — including Kung Fury's new partner, Triceracop, whom he is loath to embrace after the death of his previous partner.
If that sounds like a huge collection of elements sort of jammed together in hopes that the internet might spark to this thing, congratulations. You've properly guessed the appeal of "Kung Fury."
Is this like "Too Many Cooks"?
Well, they're both longer-than-usual viral videos that cram lots of pop culture riffs into their running times. So in that sense, yes. But Adult Swim's wacko 2014 hit "Too Many Cooks" has some substantial advantages over "Kung Fury," which we'll get to.
Who made this thing?
"Kung Fury" hails from the YouTube channel of production company Laser Unicorns, or, more accurately, the Swedish writer-director David Sandberg. Sandberg also plays the title character, and recruited Jorma Taccone, a member of the Lonely Island comedy troupe, to play Hitler.
Meanwhile, he managed to get David Hasselhoff to record the song from the short film, "True Survivor."
Sandberg was a visual effects specialist and music video director before he made "Kung Fury," and he financed the production (based on a short trailer) via Kickstarter. He asked for $200,000 to make the film and release it for free on the internet, and he wound up with $630,019, from more than 17,000 backers.
As you might expect from a visual effects technician, the special effects of "Kung Fury" are the best thing about it. Sure, they're incredibly cheesy, but Sandberg understands exactly how to make them cheesy in just the right way. They come off as an homage to some of the shoddier, lower-budget '80s films he's affectionately parodying.
Just look at this laser-raptor:
Sandberg's film actually played in the Directors' Fortnight portion of Cannes, where it was almost assuredly the first film with a character named "Triceracop" to compete.
Why is "Kung Fury" so popular?
Well, it's deeply silly in a way internet denizens would find appealing, and the targets of many of its jokes — mostly bad '80s action movies but also dinosaurs and, uh, Thor, the Norse god of thunder — are the sorts of things online junkies love to mock mercilessly.
Also, the sheer notion of so many people in "Miami 1985" having vaguely Swedish accents is great fun. A scene where Kung Fury's police chief (Per-Henrik Arvidius) reads him the riot act is entertaining, because both actors are doing their level best to have American accents and struggling. (To be fair, Sandberg's accent is less "American" and more "Keanu Reeves impression.")
In short, "Kung Fury" is exactly the kind of nostalgic homage that hits the internet sweet spot of people in their 20s and 30s, looking for something to kill time on at work. There's a great deal of affection to the parody here, and even if Sandberg can't figure out a way to move that parody beyond "Aren't cheesy movies cheesy?" he goes a long way off the goodwill he generates from being so agreeable.
Put another way, "Kung Fury" features sequences that ape the experience of watching a VHS tape that had been played too many times, so the tracking was all shot to hell.
That's enough to inspire nostalgia in even the most hardened of '80s and '90s kids' hearts. (See also: mine.)
Is "Kung Fury" any good?
Not really, no.
There are, obviously, plenty of people for whom the film plays like gangbusters. But for the most part, "Kung Fury" operates on the storytelling principle of jamming more and more stuff into the narrative, praying that you won't notice that none of it really makes sense.
The argument, of course, is that the whole thing is a parody of bad action movies, so of course the story's not supposed to make sense. But the problem with that line of thinking is that if the parody were to work in that regard, it would require a degree of specificity that "Kung Fury" never attains. Sandberg at least has the right idea in playing absolutely everything completely straight, but the action rarely goes beyond that.
By and large, you get the joke of this movie in the first two minutes, and then it spends the next 28 minutes repeating that joke over and over on a slightly larger scale. Plus it's not as if making fun of bad movies is a new idea, so "Kung Fury" bumps up against all of those other bad movie parodies (some of them much better) from the past. There's nothing here, for instance, that hasn't been done much better in multiple episodes of the sitcom Community.
The story bops, nonsensically, from 1985 to the ancient past (where dinosaurs used lasers) to a battle with Hitler, and the only thing holding it together is the dream that you will really, really enjoy laughing at an elaborate homage to terrible movies. And that devolves into thin gruel after more than a few minutes. It's entirely possible the ideal version of this story was the original trailer version.
Is the scale of what Sandberg has accomplished here impressive? Absolutely. That he was able to make a movie that looks this accomplished for as small of a budget as he was able to raise is a feat in and of itself. But for the most part, "Kung Fury" reminds the viewer of how hard it is to create good satire or parody.
It's not enough to lovingly ape that which you want to send up. You've also got to have a point of view beyond "Isn't this crazy?" And that's where "Kung Fury" falls apart. Ultimately, it's along the same lines of something like an extended Family Guy cutaway gag, or a film like Date Movie or Epic Movie — a series of satirical homages that fails to do anything coherent with them.
For a much, much, much better example of what "Kung Fury" seems to be aiming for, see the aforementioned "Too Many Cooks," which actually commits to some impressively bizarre ideas and finds something new to say in the process of making fun of bad television.
Will there be more "Kung Fury"?
In what will likely be met by either your utter delight or horror, there's a feature film version in the works.
We’re starting to develop the script with a company called KatzSmith, which is David Katzenberg [son of DreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg] and Seth Grahame-Smith [author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies]. When we met them in L.A., their office was splattered with ‘80s posters and stuff. They were just ‘80s nerds like me. To me, they’re like mentors. This past year and a half has been like a film school.
So all you "Kung Fury" fans can look out for that. Sandberg also promises Triceracop will ride again.
We can only hope.