‘Kung Fu’: The CW Puts Their Stamp on an Iconic Story

The CW’s “Kung Fu” is a new show using an old title, rather than a reboot of an old classic. The original “Kung Fu” series, which aired from 1972 through 1975, is as iconic as it was culturally appropriative. ABC allegedly stole the idea from martial arts legend Bruce Lee, and then cast David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine. His half-Chinese, half-white Shaolin monk brought an Eastern vibe to the Old West. In the recreation, Olivia Liang plays Nicky Shen, a young Chinese-American college dropout who becomes a runaway bride during a surprise marriage matchup on a trip to China. She winds up, off the grid, at a Yunnan Province monastery that trains female Shaolin. She spends three years there, training to be a Zen warrior, before the opening credits roll.

Pei-ling (Vanessa Kai) is Nicky’s Master Po. The young Shaolin warrior doesn’t have to snatch a pebble from her mentor’s hand to leave the monastery, she has to pull a sacred sword from a stone. In a night attack, a mysterious group of out-of-town ninja warriors kill Pei-Ling, steal her the first of seven mystical objects, and unleash a vengeance-filled, partially Harvard-educated martial artist on the world.  This is no “Kill Bill,” though it aspires to the heights of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” “Kung Fu” puts the CW brand all over the series. It’s been transplanted into the modern-day wild west of a very Vancouver, British Columbia-looking San Francisco, and transforms into a young adult crime drama. 

While we don’t quite get to enjoy the “fortune teller and 200 guests” wedding, the show explores family dynamics and power plays. The main character doesn’t come from a dysfunctional family. Hers is highly functional. Nicky’s sister Althea (Shannon Dang) is a hacker, her brother Ryan (Jon Prasida) wears a lab coat, her mother Mei-Li (Kheng Hua) sings at weddings but wants to disown her. Her father, Jin (Tzi Ma), spends a lot of time in a hospital bed, but no one thinks to put a guard outside his door.

Nicky comes home in the nick of time. Althea is about to get married to Dennis Soong (Tony Chung), and her father just got a last call on a $100,000 bill he owes the local Triad. It’s a good thing Nicky’s ex-boyfriend Evan (Gavin Stenhouse) happens to work in the D.A.’s office. The premise of a prodigal child’s return is the opposite of the original show. After his master was killed by assassins, Kwai Chang Caine left home to wander unknown territories bringing a philosophical justice to a strange and obstinately violent new world. Nicky is back to clean up her old neighborhood while keeping an eye out for an even older weapon.

The first time Nicky lets loose her martial arts skills in a street fight is exciting and satisfying. It’s more than a battle, it is a reveal. The audience knows she can kick ass in both fast and slow motion, but her sister and brother had no idea. Watching their reaction becomes a fun mirror to use as a point of view. Just wait til they get a load of her levitation moves.

Two of the featured fights in the pilot highlight choreography and appear to be within reality. Even a gravity-defying Wuxia move is explained away as a good jump. We do get a sense of peril when the camera speeds up as a knife is slashing towards Nicky’s face. But almost anyone can step out of the way of the bullets caught up in slow-motion. The first action scene is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the constant forward motion of the hand-held POV captures the treacherous atmosphere. But, while you can’t see the strings, you can occasionally walk the space between where Nicky’s kicks land and where her opponents’ faces happen to be before they go flying backwards eighteen feet. 

“Kung Fu” moves so fast it looks like the film editors are cutting frames to get the whole premise in under 40 minutes. The plot shifts come at hyper-speed: Nicky goes to China for a “cultural tour,” finds out her mother set her up, escapes to a monastery, comes home to find a criminal gang is terrorizing Chinatown. If it keeps up this pace, audiences might drop off complaining of whiplash. The protagonists need time to breathe. Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman) is an effectively mysterious villain. She assassinates a Shaolin master and leaves the main character to die. She has no past, no future, and is presently at large and on her way to a destiny beyond mortal control. She can hold the mythical ancient sword that burns Nicky’s hand. 

The series was created by Christina M. Kim. Veteran executive producer Greg Berlanti is known to put a dark and gritty spin on his productions. “Kung Fu” is the Yang. It is lighthearted, infused with bright pop music, likable young talent, and plenty of bad people to fight. It resembles “Nancy Drew,” if set in a far too brightly lit Arrowverse. The dialogue is fast. The exchanges are filled with what will become a well-defined character-driven sense of humor. Liang is as formidable in emotional battle as she is with the martial arts. She, Dang and Prasida have respectable sibling chemistry.

Nicky’s family isn’t too familiar with the vendetta game. Ryan instantly forgives his sister for not being there for him when he came out, and then brings a flash camera to a dark Triad arms deal. With hate crimes rising against Asian Americans, representation is an urgent necessity, and “Kung Fu” tries to fill a desperate quota with the utmost civility. The series treats the traditions and ancient stories with respect, and none of the cultural elements feel forced. But the Triad which is menacing Nicky’s family is generic, especially against the palate of more dire villains to choose from reality.

The ending is as corny as the opening of the 1950s “Superman” TV series. Nicky almost turns into the narrator from “The Powerpuff Girls” as she confronts her new destiny. “What if this was what I was meant to do,” she asks the ghost of her mentor as the music crescendos. “To protect my family, my community, and to stop Zhilan?” While the pilot offered an exciting first round, “Kung Fu” may not triumph in the fight for truth, justice, and the Asian-American Way until it finds its own voice. 

Kung Fu” premieres April 7 and airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on the CW.