In the opening moments of Netflix’s The Brothers Sun, a trio of hitmen descend on the home of Charles Sun (Justin Chien), the scion of a notorious triad. In a series of long, fluid takes, Charles defends himself with the grace of a trained warrior and the assurance of a man who’s used to danger, sending bodies flying through the air and blood spilling across his floor.
But a grim and gritty battle this isn’t. The entire fight plays out against an episode of The Great British Bake Off that Charles had been watching before he was so rudely interrupted. “I’m so wounded,” moans a contestant as Charles smashes one guy’s face in with a rolling pin. “Oh no, I think your cake’s just fallen,” the host sighs as Charles sends another crashing down from the second floor.
As bingeable as a tray of freshly baked cookies.
Airdate: Thursday, Jan. 4 (Netflix)
Cast: Justin Chien, Sam Song Li, Michelle Yeoh, Highdee Kuan, Joon Lee, Madison Hu, Alice Hewkin, Jenny Yang, Jon Xue Zhang, Johnny Kou
Creators: Byron Wu, Brad Falchuk
The scene sets the tone for eight hourlong episodes that serve up plenty of violent action and dramatic twists — but that, above all, aim to deliver on a good time. And although the end result feels like something less than the sum of its parts, it still yields enough fun to make Byron Wu and Brad Falchuk‘s action-comedy-drama as bingeable as a tray of freshly baked cookies.
In early episodes, The Brothers Sun plays like an upbeat, if somewhat uneven, buddy comedy. Following the attack, Charles leaves Taiwan in search of the mother (Michelle Yeoh) he hasn’t seen in years. Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, Charles is baffled to discover that his younger brother, Bruce (Sam Song Li), has grown into a soft, clueless American who knows nothing of the family’s criminal legacy and dreams of nothing more ambitious than a career in improv comedy; for his part, Bruce is understandably shocked by the truth that’s been kept from him for so long. But as the pair zip around town trying to ID a decapitated head or deliver an exotic lizard, their stiffness gradually melts into the squabbling sibling dynamic they must have shared as kids, and then into genuine affection and respect.
Chien stands out for his ability to shift between the ruthless killer Charles has been trained to be and the sweet homebody he really is deep down, with just a slight alteration in posture or a subtle drop of his brow. While he generally plays the straight man to Bruce’s shaggier, goofier vibe, his deadpan demeanor becomes hilarious in itself when he applies the same determination he brings to his gangland dealings to his quest for the perfect churro recipe. Meanwhile, Everything Everywhere All at Once and American Born Chinese star Yeoh could probably play “Asian auntie with an insane secret” in her sleep by now — but that makes it no less fun to watch her passive-aggressively berate her adult sons, or coolly turn the tables on a would-be kidnapper.
The family’s chemistry grounds The Brothers Sun in a surprisingly relatable emotional reality. For all the underworld politicking and intricately choreographed fistfights, the conflicts faced by the Suns are ones that will be familiar to just about anyone: where to draw the line between one’s own dreams and a parent’s expectations, what one owes to their family and is owed by their family in return. While the series avoids dwelling on the characters’ psychological damage (lest it cut too far into our glee at watching them scheme and slice their way through enemy factions), it offers enough angst to keep us feeling for the Suns even in their moral murkiness.
Atop that solid thematic foundation, The Brothers Sun builds a zany funhouse of criminal activity. While the series never develops a fully distinctive style of its own, it borrows from the best: Edgar Wright, John Wick and Jackie Chan are among the obvious influences on its action, pacing and sense of humor. The series reimagines the heavily Asian American suburbs of San Gabriel Valley as an underworld hub where one cannot so much as throw a rock without hitting a locally beloved seafood restaurant that’s secretly a money-laundering front, where assassins show up to kids’ parties in blow-up dinosaur costumes and henchmen spend their careers looking for any opportunity to inject Gymkata moves into a brawl. (Admittedly, it looks very cool when one finally pulls it off.)
The marriage of contrasting tones has its flaws. Its later, more intense chapters over-rely on heavily telegraphed twists and hasty changes in motivation. As sharply defined as the Suns are, the supporting characters are a mixed bag. Some, like Jon Xue Zhang’s genial henchman Blood Boots, make a big impression with limited screen time; others, like Charles’ law-enforcement love interest Alexis (Highdee Kuan) or Bruce’s feckless BFF TK (Joon Lee), come off respectively like thin plot devices or lackluster comic relief. And the jokes don’t always hit as crisply as they could. Bruce’s love of improv, for instance, is a running gag that never goes deeper than the initially amusing notion that it’s probably the least gangster activity imaginable. (Charles’ passion for baking, by contrast, turns out to have a whole poignant backstory attached to it.)
Even its wobblier choices are easy to forgive, however, when they seem rooted in such an earnest desire to surprise and delight. It’s telling that, for all their differences, Charles and Bruce seem to share a passion for creating straightforward pleasures: the sweetness of a freshly baked pastry, the joy of freewheeling comedy. In that sense, the entertaining The Brothers Sun is not so different from its own leads.
‘The Brothers Sun’ Review: Michelle Yeoh Is a Crime Family Matriarch in Netflix’s Zanily Entertaining Action Dramedy