Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Retro Fever: Kung Fury vs. Turbo Kid

Triceracop and David Sandberg in Kung Fury.

Get ready for the understatement of the week: popular media sure loves the 1980s right now. When studios aren’t scrambling to remake anything from the Reagan era with even the barest semblance of name recognition (I’m still holding out for the gritty reboot of Teddy Ruxpin, personally), everyone from video game developers to fashion designers to amateur filmmakers are appropriating the loud, garish, neon-and-pastel synthpop aesthetic of the late 80s and early 90s, because people seem to be lapping it up, so why not? This is a strange phenomenon whose causes have doubtless been explicated elsewhere far more expertly than I ever could – all I know is, I look around at popular media these days and it’s one of the most common tropes I recognize. Films like Kung Fury and Turbo Kid almost seem like inevitabilities in this climate.

If that doesn’t ring immediately true for you, I present Kung Fury as conclusive evidence: successfully crowdfunded through Kickstarter in 2014, it’s living proof that there is a sizable and eager market out there for this very specific brand of pandering schlock. It’s the “story” of the titular Kung Fury (writer-director David Sandberg), a tough cop whose partner is killed by a ninja and who is granted magical martial arts powers when he is simultaneously struck by lightning and bitten by a cobra. Adolf Hitler, having time-travelled to Fury’s present in 1985, guns down the police chief and Fury vows revenge. He enlists the help of a hacker named Hackerman (natch) who “hacks” the “timestream” and allows Kung Fury to travel to the Viking Age to recruit a pair of Valkyries and Thor himself before hopping to Nazi Germany to put the kibosh on the “Kung Führer’s” plans. It’s exactly as idiotic as it sounds, and while it’s marketed and presented as a comedy film – which is the excuse the film provides for its asinine content – it’s also deeply in love with itself. Its references are so rapid-fire and so flagrant that you barely have time to register them before the next absurd joke is already flying by. (Hackerman straps on Nintendo’s Power Glove because… well, because it’s a recognizable object from the time period. Why are you still thinking about this?)

Every element is treated with the 1980s sheen, from the dance hall soundtrack to the intentional “tracking errors,” designed to simulate the experience of viewing the film on a VHS tape. I do admire the film’s faithfulness to 1980s excess; it’s exactly as vapid, vain, and lacking in self-awareness as the best of the films it lampoons, and it is perhaps in this sense that it’s probably the most accurate parody of ‘80s entertainment I’ve seen. It lives and breathes its “ridiculousness for its own sake” theme, and never even attempts to forge a deeper connection with its audience, which is probably the correct choice. But this means its audience is limited right out of the gate, because if you weren’t laughing aloud at my synopsis, then Kung Fury is absolutely not for you. Its message can be boiled down to “remember how wacky the 1980s were?”, and when the answer is “yes”, there’s not much you can do other than sit back and let it continue to hammer that home, and when the answer is “no” – when these tropes aren’t recognizable or interesting to you – then the film has literally nothing to offer (except, perhaps, the music video for the film’s “True Survivor” track starring David Hasselhoff, who sings with the glee of someone not only desperately glad to be working, but reliving their glory days in the most literal way possible). Kung Fury is only half an hour long, so whether you can’t stand it or can’t get enough, it’s over very quickly. 

Munro Chambers and Laurence Leboeuf in Turbo Kid.

Turbo Kid is a very different beast, and not just because it’s feature-length. It, too, has a synth-heavy soundtrack and banks on a feeling of nostalgia – but it differs in that it’s got other emotions to evoke as well. It’s the story of “The Kid” (Munro Chambers), a comic-book fan who wanders the post-apocalyptic wasteland of 1997 America (which sometimes looks suspiciously like rural Quebec, “ARRÊT” signs and all). A tyrannical water-hoarding overlord named Zeus (Michael Ironside, having way too much fun) captures the Kid’s newfound friend, a strangely ebullient girl named Apple (Laurence Laboeuf), and so he dons the mantle (and the laser-blasting gauntlet) of his comic-book idol in order to save her and overthrow Zeus. Right off the bat, it’s clear that Turbo Kid is more interested in being a real movie, unlike the extended gag reel that is Kung Fury. The Kid and Apple are characters, who are motivated by different things, have relevant backstories, and who – most importantly – resonate onscreen thanks to their genuine chemistry. Turbo Kid is not about to win any screenwriting or acting awards, but its simple tale is sincere and likeable, and that’s not only a great success for a low-budget independent genre picture, but also much more than can be said for Kung Fury.

It’s not devoid of references, of course – the Kid’s gauntlet is a clear parody of the aforementioned Power Glove, and he thrusts it into the air with a gleaming laser flash that looks just like Thundercats – but these references aren’t cloying, and don’t detract from the story that Turbo Kid is trying to tell. They’re simple window-dressing (when in Kung Fury they were the main event), and that makes all the difference. That, and the earnest performances from everyone involved, including Aaron Jeffery as Frederic, the foul-mouthed, rough-and-tumble cowboy who earns his living by arm wrestling and who rides the wasteland on his chopper-style bicycle. Everyone in the post-apocalyptic future of 1997 rides bicycles, of course – what else would they use in a world without gasoline? The sight of a gang of wasteland raiders pedaling up for a fight never stops being funny, and is just one of many visual gags used to great effect in Turbo Kid.

Laurence Leboeuf in Turbo Kid.
What you’re most likely to hear about when this film is mentioned is the gratuitous, over-the-top violence, achieved almost exclusively through practical effects and so creatively gross and gory that they become the most brilliant and memorable part of the film. Zeus’s right hand man, the masked and silent Skeletron, dispatches his foes with a wrist-mounted saw-blade launcher that produces some exquisitely cringeworthy kills, and the Kid’s power gauntlet reduces baddies into a burst of blood and viscera. It’s the more unusual kills – like the raider who is stabbed in the gut with a shovel, the handle of which is promptly trodden on, sending his top half flying through the air to land on his friend’s head like a garbage can; or the torture method involving a stationary bike and a character’s intestines, which had me howling in disgust and delight in my seat – that really set Turbo Kid apart, pushing it nearly into horror territory. It’s clearly the work of dedicated gorehounds who grew up on Fangoria and the films of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, and who poured just as much nostalgia for that niche film experience as for the entire ‘90s film experience into their own creation. What’s remarkable is that it never feels wrong – they are able to balance the film’s tone between goofy and gory, and it still comes out feeling like a unified experience. That’s a feat few big-budget directors can achieve, so it’s all the more impressive in this humble indie film.

Watching both Kung Fury and Turbo Kid in succession really demonstrated the highs and lows of the ‘80s retro craze. I know most people treat material of this kind as a kind of guilty-pleasure indulgence, and that’s often just what it is – a true style-over-substance proposition. But I think there can be real value in revisiting the styles and tropes of the past, and examining them with the benefit of hindsight. There were things we simply couldn’t do back then, so these films can sometimes feel like realizations of decades-old dreams, and there’s an undeniable charm to that idea. Plus, the simple delight of watching a Tyrannosaur chomp on some Nazis will probably never get old.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism. 


  1. I want more! What are some other films or peices that resemble this awesome new genre?

  2. I've found the gaming world is really where this trend took root. There are countless examples of retro-styled games (like Shovel Knight, Hotline Miami, etc), most of which are available through Steam. The spinoff game Far Cry: Blood Dragon was probably the most perfectly pure distillation of the 80s retro craze, but did it in a genuinely funny way, and was perfectly paced so as not to overstay its welcome. Definitely worth checking out if you're craving a better nostalgia buzz.

  3. Just wanted to say I 100% agree with you and thank you for this article.

  4. i watched kungfury a few weeks back stoned off my ass with my best buddy, i never laughed more in a short time as i did with that movie, then i just watched turbo kid last night, while not as funny as kungfury it still had some great laughs. i hihly recommend it to anybody who loves random stupid comedy's like family guy and the lot i r8 8/8 gr8 b8 m8.