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'The Brothers Sun' is a freewheeling, messy and quite entertaining comedy-thriller

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new Netflix comedy-drama "The Brothers Sun," a legendary Taiwanese assassin travels to Los Angeles to protect his goofy younger brother and his formidable mother, played by Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh. Our critic-at-large John Powers says the series is freewheeling, messy and quite entertaining.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: The most famous line of the Vietnam War came during the Tet Offensive, when an American major declared that his soldiers had to destroy a village to save it. This remark sent shock waves through American culture, finding its most famous echo, perhaps, in "The Godfather" saga, where Michael Corleone's often-expressed desire to protect his family leads him, among other things, to have his own brother murdered. This same idea takes more lighthearted form in "The Brothers Sun," a messily enjoyable new Netflix series about a family whose patriarch heads Taiwan's most powerful triad, or gang. Created by newcomer Byron Wu and TV veteran Brad Falchuk, who co-created "Glee" and "American Horror Story," this freewheeling eight-episode comedy thriller puts a refreshing Asian American spin on traditional gangster and immigrant yarns.

Justin Chien stars as Charles Sun, a notoriously lethal killer who works for his father's triad, the Jade Dragon. When someone tries to murder his old man, Charles, known as Chair Leg for once killing a man with one, flies to LA to safeguard the rest of his family, whom he hasn't seen in years. His mother, Eileen - that's Michelle Yeoh - lives with his younger brother Bruce, played by Sam Song Li, a good-hearted college student who has no clue about the family business. Bruce's idea of being bad is secretly taking an improv class instead of cramming hard to become a doctor, as his mother expects. As soon as Charles hits town, things get really busy. Even as hitmen come after the family in waves, there's a whole lot of knifing, shooting and martial arts.

The brothers are busy feeling each other out, getting romantically involved with women who may or may not be trustworthy, and discovering that their mother is not who they'd thought. She may seem like an ordinary mom. Her sons marvel at her gifts for passive aggressive manipulation, but she plots triad warfare like a latter-day Sun Tzu. Here, she and Charles visit a mahjong parlor looking for intel. When he grumbles that they're wasting their time, she explains why they've come.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BROTHERS SUN")

JUSTIN CHIEN: (As Charles) It's totally - it's a waste of time. Let's go play mahjong with some aunties. We might win three whole dollars.

MICHELLE YEOH: (As Eileen) You see a basement full of chatty old women. I see a complex network of relationships, favors and debts.

CHIEN: (As Charles) They're gossips, not spies.

YEOH: (As Eileen) If you want to know about politics, you go to Mrs. Cheng (ph). She works at the mayor's office. And if you want to know about the church, ask Mrs. Liu (ph). Her husband is the pastor of the Chinese church. And if you want to know anything about Pastor Liu, ask Mrs. Wong (ph). She is having an affair with him. And rumor has it she gave him herpes.

POWERS: Now, if you've seen much Chinese pop culture, you'll know that it often possesses a slightly delirious mixture of tones. "The Brothers Sun" is closer in spirit to Hong Kong than to Hollywood in the sense that it dishes up seemingly everything - action sequences, cornball buffoonery, romantic interludes, soap opera twists, touching tales of illegal immigrants and sly jokes about Asian American life, including a parody of the mansion where the actor John Cho supposedly lives. All of this is fueled by wall-to-wall pop songs. Although the show's uneven, "The Brothers Sun" offers a nifty glimpse at Chinese immigrant life in LA's San Gabriel Valley, with its mini-malls, low-rent travel agents and terrific restaurants. The show correctly identifies the bakery that makes the best egg tarts.

We meet an admirably wide range of Asian American characters, from nerdy to comically feckless to downright dangerous. And we get an amusingly offbeat look at the conventional divide between immigrant parents, who want their kids to be professionals, and the kids, who want the sort of fun, creative jobs you get to do in America. In their different ways, all the sons attempt to save the family - Charles with ultraviolence, Eileen with chicanery, Bruce by working to force them out of crime altogether. Yet they all have dreams that are being thwarted by the very family they're trying to save.

Just as Bruce wants to be on stage and not in med school, Charles is trapped being a killer. He's a wannabe baker who's actually happier in the kitchen trying to learn how to make the churros that wowed him when he first hit LA. Even though the show is officially about the brothers, its true center of gravity is the Oscar-winning Yeoh, who possesses the ease and emotional weight that turns their mother into the show's most compelling character - a smart, strong woman who calmly but firmly reveals her own ambitions. As the jokes and bodies fly all around her, Yeoh makes Eileen the still point of a madly spinning world.

MOSLEY: John Powers reviewed the new Netflix series "The Brothers Sun." If you'd like to catch up with FRESH AIR interviews you missed, check out our podcast. You'll find recent interviews with Bradley Cooper, who directed, wrote and stars in the new movie "Maestro," and with Rose Previte, author of a new cookbook inspired by her travels and home-cooked Lebanese dishes from her childhood. Find FRESH AIR wherever you listen to podcasts. And to keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "I SAW HER STANDING THERE")

MOSLEY: Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. My co-host is Terry Gross. I'm Tonya Mosley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.