‘The Brothers Sun’ Review: Wonky Writing Ruins a Good Show

The show has many good things going for it, but the final product is less than the sum of its parts.

Michelle Yeoh, Sam Song Li, and Justin Chien (from left) in The Brothers Sun. COURTESY OF NETFLIX

It seems like very few movies and shows are able to produce a simple story told well these days, with the temptation of throwing in unexpected (read: unnecessary, unsatisfying) twists winning out much of the time. Such is the case with Netflix’s otherwise enjoyable series The Brothers Sun, which starts as a show about a college kid learning he’s related to Taiwanese gangsters and ends with a plot so messy and embargoed that this review can’t even begin to delve into it.

The show begins with an attempted murder. The target? Ostensibly it’s Charles Sun (Justin Chien), the heir to the Jade Dragons criminal dynasty, but the attack on him is really meant to draw out the fearsome Big Sun (Johnny Kou). The assassination plot is brazen, breaking the already-thin trust in Taiwan’s underworld, so Charles must venture to sunny California to protect his mother Eileen (Michelle Yeoh) and his entirely ignorant younger brother Bruce (Sam Song Li), who he hasn’t seen in nearly two decades. There, the family must confront new threats, old traditions, and a determined Deputy DA (Highdee Kuan).

Bruce unwittingly stands at the center of this story, a college kid who wants to do improv in spite of his expensive pre-med courses. He is, as many other characters say throughout the series, “soft.” Both the protagonist and the audience surrogate, he must navigate this new world of vicious triads all while reconciling with the fact that it’s actually been his life all along. It’s a unique coming-of-age conceit, less of a “fish out of water” and more of a “rug pulled out underneath you” story, and the fresh-faced Li sells it well.

Yeoh, in her largest role since her Oscar-winning performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once, plays a mother who has lived much of her life in secret. Cunning and skilled beyond her youngest son’s wildest imagination, she’s a fierce second head of the Jade Dragons despite her years of hiding away. As much as she stands as a unifier between the essentially estranged Bruce and Charles, though, she represents a very different face of the Taiwanese triad culture than her eldest son is used to. 

As a tension-filled family trio, Bruce, Charles, and Eileen are great TV: two brothers from different worlds and a mother who basically burned the bridge between them. Li and Chien’s dynamic wouldn’t feel out of place in a family sitcom, as their characters make up for years of missed sibling squabbling. Yeoh’s all-knowing mother is good too, with the contrast in how she treats her sons a poignant emotional through line in the series. That said, The Brothers Sun abandons its compelling family saga in favor of international conspiracies, thinly written villains, and total motivational turnarounds.

Sam Song Li and Justin Chien in The Brothers Sun. MICHAEL DESMOND/NETFLIX

Without going deeply into the details, the shadowy group going after the Sun family never gets particularly illuminated. Sure, they get a name and an 11th hour villainous monologue packed to the brim with dense exposition, but they hardly register. This supposed Big Bad Threat is all but omnipresent, able to follow and attack the Suns at every turn, but the weight of their actions never seems to tip the scales in the series. It leaves you waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the stakes to get raised, but the conflict stays static, tedious and, frankly, boring.

The Brothers Sun also suffers from some labored characterization. Conversations about family duty get rehashed over and over as Bruce, Charles, and Eileen try to find their place in this dangerous world, and none of them seem able to decide how seriously to take the threats around them. But then The Brothers Sun can’t quite decide if it wants to be a family dramedy, a crime thriller, or a clever action series.

Justin Chien as Charles in The Brothers Sun. MICHAEL DESMOND/NETFLIX

While the plotting is rocky, the show’s action sequences are anything but. The Brothers Sun puts a huge emphasis on highly choreographed physical fight scenes (according to Li, they got the guys from John Wick to help with that, and it shows). The camerawork is as kinetic as the actors on screen, and Chien is especially impressive as the show’s primary arbiter of violence. And though many are brutal and bone-crunching, some of the fight scenes are delivered with more of a wink than a wince—there’s plenty of fun to be had in these moments.

The Brothers Sun is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink kind of show, and it stands to draw in plenty of viewers with its wit, talented cast, and kick-ass action. But whether or not the series will really stick with people is another matter entirely. The show is fun and much of the family drama is stirring, but the series’ questionable writing ultimately undermines that quality.

‘The Brothers Sun’ Review: Wonky Writing Ruins a Good Show