Kung Fu is fast, frenetic, physics-defying chopsocky action

Rebooting the classic 70s TV show, this time with an arse-kicking female Asian lead, the new Kung Fu (streaming on BINGE) delivers breezy good fun. Here’s Travis Johnson’s review. 

From 1972 to 1975 David Carradine wandered the Old West in the TV series Kung Fu. His character, Kwai Chang Caine, was a half Chinese/half American Shaolin monk exiled from China and searching for his family on the frontier. He was frequently forced to use his impressive martial arts skills to protect the innocent and rain holy hell on the wicked.

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Then there was a sequel series in the ‘90s that saw Carradine play a descendant of the original Caine. And now, almost 50 years since Caine walked the Earth like Jules after Pulp Fiction, having adventures and shit, a third iteration steps to the fore—but there have been some changes.

For starters, the new version of Kung Fu, which comes to us courtesy of showrunner Christina M. King Arrowverse/Sabrina mastermind Greg Berlanti, gives us a protagonist who is actually Asian. Oliva Liang plays Nicky Shen, a Chinese-American woman who skips out on her doting but strict mother’s (Kheng Hua Tan) attempts to set her up with a nice boy from the old country.

Instead, she spends three years in a Shaolin Temple (as you do…) learning the kind of high-flying, high-kicking, wire-assisted deadly arts familiar to fans of wuxia cinema (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the most visible example to western audiences). After the monastery is burned, her mentor is murdered, and the temple’s sacred sword is stolen, Nicky decamps back to San Francisco, where she finds her community under the thumb of vicious triad gangs and other ne’er-do-wells. What’s a highly trained kung fu exponent to do, other than start kicking heads?

Yes, there’s a formula in play here, but it’s an enjoyable one. The first handful of episodes are, well, episodic, with mission-of-the-week plots balanced by the larger meta-narrative. But hey—kudos for not letting the obvious dead mentor/stolen artifact plot hook dangle for too long. The action is fast, frenetic and fun, the choreography drawing from the heightened style of classic kung fu cinema rather than anything more quote-unquote “realistic.” Even Nicky’s allies comment on the fact that some of her fighting feats fly in the face of physics.

But it’s the sense of community that intrigues. Caine, in the original series, was a wanderer and outcast, trudging from town to dusty town. Nicky, by contrast, is returning home, meaning she has to contend with relationships she left behind three years ago. There’s her soon-to-be-married sister, Althea (Shannon Drang); med student brother Ryan (Jon Prasida), who really needs to have a frank conversation with his parents regarding his sexuality; old flame Evan (Gavin Stenhouse), a hunky doctor; and new flame Eddie (Eddie Liu), whose criminal past, along with his expertise in Chinese mythology, should make for some fun adventures down the track.

Even better, we get acting legend Tzi Ma as Nicky’s restaurateur dad—and he’s worth the price of admission alone. You definitely get the sense that Kung Fu is taking pains to give a decent depiction of life in the Chinese diaspora. And while we’re here for the action, this kind of cultural shading is welcome.

It’s all breezy good fun for an action-drama, although the focus is more on dramas than action, with Nicky’s family dramas getting more screen time than her forays into vigilantism. It’s miles away from the OTT grit of Warrior or the gratuitous slaughter of Gangs of London. Compared to other entries in the modern pantheon of martial arts television this is definitely aimed at a younger audience, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a spin—or a spinning kick.