You can take the novice out of the Shaolin monastery, but you can’t take the Shaolin out of the novice. Kwai Chang Caine could have told Nicky Shen that, but they are from different shows and different historical eras. Hardly any elements remain from the original 1972 series, but Shen still finds plenty of use for her skills when she returns to America in the pilot episode of showrunner Christina M. Kim’s rebooted Kung Fu, which premieres Wednesday on the CW.
Shen was decidedly disappointed when she discovered her controlling mother sent her to Mainland China to be matched with a husband, so she hitches a ride Zhang Pei-ling, the abbess of a Shaolin monastery. The American runaway only planned to spend the night, but she stayed for three years, finding the discipline, purpose, and sense of belonging she needed. Unfortunately, her retreat from life ends violently when the mysterious Zhilan attacks the monastery and kills Zhang.
Returning home, Shen awkwardly reconnects with her family, including her naïve parents, who have fallen prey to a violent loan shark. In some ways, her homecoming came just in time, especially since her sister has engagement events pending. She will also research the ancient sword Zhilan stole from her teacher, Zhang, who still guides her, like Ben Kenobi returning through the force.
The late-episode revelation suggests a pretty good driving mythology for a martial arts series and the pilot features pretty nicely choreographed fight sequences. Yvonne Chapman is already flamboyantly fierce as Zhilan and Vanessa Kai has the right kind of mystical toughness as Zhang, the Keye Luke-like figure. So far, Olivia Liang is also reasonably solid as Shen, but it is Chapman and Kai who are more likely to hook genre fans. Frankly, the Shen family melodrama needs to be lower in the episode mix, even though it is nice to see Tzi Ma playing her father, Jin.
Kung Fu. Many of the changes are for the better, but it is so different from the David Carradine Kung Fu, it seems strange they tried to maintain an association with the previous franchise. Sadly, there really isn’t anyone left from the first series (like Carradine, Luke, or Phillip Ahn) to make a fan-placating guest-star appearance in the reboot, so why bother?
Regardless, Kim and company have a few bugs to work out (seriously, how much domineering mother angst do we really need?), but overall, the pilot episode shows potential. Worth checking out for the martial arts, the reboot pilot of Kung Fu premieres this Wednesday (4/7), on the CW.