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Sunday, April 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movies

Killer role revives Carradine's career

Seattle Times staff reporter

David Carradine is grabbing me by the windpipe.

Not softly, either. The two publicists in the room look alarmed, and I'm guessing that I'm bug-eyed. He holds on for what seems like a good amount of time, pulling the thing out some.

It wasn't that I took the last Coke in the hotel suite.

"There's no such thing as a last Coke," he had said, chain-smoking $38-a-pack English Oval cigarettes from a silver case.

We had been talking about his climactic fight scene with Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill Vol. 2," which opened Friday. He'd said that by cutting another much-discussed fight between him and actor Michael Jai White, Tarantino was underlining the fact that Carradine had been hired as an actor, not a martial artist. I asked if he'd show me a move. I was thinking maybe the film's vaunted five-finger-heart-exploder-thingie.

Carradine looked at me. "You don't really want me to do that."

Well, I don't want you to kill me.

"Something you can use ... if you get attacked ... " Abruptly, he leaned forward and grabbed my throat. "Try this one. That right there." On the interview tape, there's the sound of me saying something like "Khlghhh!" "That'll change anybody's mind," he says.

Do tell. Is this guy nuts? In fact, the 67-year-old former star of "Kung Fu" who's just made it hard for me to swallow for the next two days couldn't be friendlier. Fact is, he's always had an eccentric reputation. But he's candid, laughs easily and loves to tell stories.

"I've actually gotten rid of a couple of, like, redneck guys with that one. And a Turk!" he says, leaning back in his chair and ignoring my wisecrack about not needing one of his cigarettes to cough now. "A huge Turk once I got rid of that way. A guy who attacked me in Paris, in a restaurant ... "

It's his moment, and he's enjoying it. Rediscovered by the world's hippest pop-culture-geek director, he's given an attention-getting performance in the title role and looks poised to reap the same effects as John Travolta, Robert Forster and Pam Grier before him.

"Well, we'll see, won't we? Nobody's really seen the picture yet, so it's all still out to lunch," he says several days before the picture opened. "But I don't think there's any doubt about the fact that I've got myself a new career."

Bill is the wrangler of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad — a Charlie to their angels, but stronger in the mack-daddy suit. He's mentor, boss and father of "Bride" Uma Thurman's baby. When she flees his stable, the other DiVAS drop in on her wedding rehearsal, and Bill leaves her for dead with a bullet in her skull. After she emerges from a coma, a bloody, over-the-top revenge spree ensues.

What's his secret to being a "snake charmer," as he's listed in the credits?

"Well, my performance and Quentin's writing. He wrote a charming guy, and I pulled it off," Carradine says. "The secret? He's funny. He's just pleasant. I think part of the reason why he seems so charming is the anticipation of him. You're expecting kind of a monster."

Originally intended to be a single movie, the three-hour-plus saga got sliced in two. Bill's little more than a voice in "Vol. 1," but he nearly steals "Vol. 2" from action dynamo Thurman. Likewise, the new movie is a change of pace from the first one — which viewers seemed either to worship or disconnect with.

He explains, "The first half was supposed to be a bloodbath. The second half was supposed to be getting to know the characters and finding out what's going on. Because (Tarantino) said, 'Every action picture, it starts out with a big, long exposition, and then the end of the movie is nothing but fight scenes and car chases and stuff like that. So I'm going to reverse the order.' Because it's Quentin. And so that's the way the original three-hour movie was designed.

"So the result is that you get two completely different kinds of movies. One of them is just nothing but action, and the second one is much more what we expect from Quentin, what we're used to getting from Quentin, which is a lot of funny, strange dialogue, introducing you to character after character that has some kind of strange agenda."

Carradine has worked with plenty of other great directors, including Ingmar Bergman (in 1977's "The Serpent's Egg," on DVD this week) and Hal Ashby in 1976's "Bound for Glory." But — getting back to killing him — his obituary might still always lead with his role as Kwai Chang Caine in the landmark "Kung Fu" series. The first season has been a hit since its DVD debut last month. He's philosophical about that.

"I have dealt with that moment to moment. It's not like something I look at, what, 30 years that's been going on, and suddenly make a decision about it. It unfolds gradually. I mean, if we have global warming to the point where the coastal cities are under water, that doesn't mean we're all going to drown. It means we'll all have moved. You know what I'm saying?"

I'm not sure.

"Things happen gradually. And it isn't like you might think, either. Because the vast amount of my fans are 'Kung Fu' watchers and not 'Serpent's Egg' watchers, and we can understand that. There was an audience of 30-40 million people watching it once a week back then, and there's an audience of 140 million people now watching it worldwide, but they watch it every day because it's in syndication."

He sort of reprised the role in the less-memorable '90s series "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues" as Caine's identical, contemporary, uh, help me out here.

"I'm his grandson," Carradine says. "Either that or I arrived in a DeLorean. Either that or this kung fu (expletive) really works and I'm 150 years old!" he laughs.

That raises the issue of the many ups and downs in Carradine's personal and professional life — which has seen its share of "B" pictures, including the cult classic "Death Race 2000." "And 'C' ones," he cheerfully adds.

"When something really great comes along and it's offered to me, I'm going to do it. And if something really great has not come along to me, I'm going to do something, and there's some kind of bottom line below which one doesn't go."

Carradine's favorite movie? Although "Americana," the 1981 labor-of-love he directed, starred in and co-wrote, is right up there, he says Bill is his favorite role.

"And that could be a summer romance, but I don't think so, because Quentin woke something up in me that had been sleeping, maybe forever. Or at least for a long time."

And he gets to deliver "Vol. 2's" most memorable lines. We can't print the real whopper here.

"But there's a lot of good lines that I have in that," Carradine says. "And I suppose 'I'm the man' is the one that I like the best, because after all, I am."

You want to stick your neck out and argue with him?

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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