Netflix's Wu Assassins Season 1 Review

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Bigger Trouble in Little China

by Casimir Harlow Aug 8, 2019 at 7:38 PM

  • The Raid's Iko Uwais returns to Netflix with his very own TV series, and his very own superpowers, but did he really need them?

    The star of The Raid and The Raid 2, Uwais should have been a shoe-in for the next big action star, but language limitations are still an issue and, even beyond that, Hollywood just doesn't know what to do with decent martial artists. After Ong Bak, Tony Jaa should have become a household name and, even before that, the likes of Jet Li, Jackie Chan and even Mark Dacascos (ironically, a supporting actor in this very show, clearly enjoying a much deserved but far too late comeback thanks to John Wick 3) never fully made it through to the big time, despite valiant efforts.

    Uwais was staggeringly good in both Raid films, which have been well-received globally. And, sure, it's earned him a brief cameo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but that's just emblematic of his under-utilisation. Beyond Skyline benefited from his presence, but still utterly wasted him, and Mile 22 was even more insulting, seldom letting him rip with properly-framed and choreographed action which you could actually see in all its glory. He's still largely found more glory in foreign productions - 2016's Headshot, 2018's The Night Comes for Us (which was a great little coup for Netflix), and this year's Triple Threat, which unites him with a trio of other under-utilised martial artists at this level - Tony Jaa, Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White.

    Returning to Netflix, Uwais is trying a different angle this time, with the streaming giant possibly trying to fill the super-powered martial arts gap that the loss of the Netflix/Marvel shows left behind - most obviously comparable to Iron Fist - but, with the skills this guy had to offer, it's difficult to see how he needed any kind of enhancement to deliver exciting, impossibly fast, kick-ass action. Perhaps, these days, that's just not enough.

    Uwais is trying a different angle, with the streaming giant possibly trying to fill the gap the Marvel shows left behind - most obviously Iron Fist

    Set in present-day San Francisco Chinatown, the story has Uwais' lowly chef Kai Jon - who dreams of hitting the road in his own food truck - becoming embroiled with the Chinese Triad who dine at his restaurant and who, aside from their normal nefarious activities, are also seeking to command some dangerous powers. After a visit from a mysterious stranger, he's gifted the mantle of the Wu Assassin - and the energies of a thousand monks - and tasked with finding and killing five Triad villains, before they use these stolen mystical powers to do some serious damage.

    Strip away the mystical elements, and basically you have Uwais kicking Triad ass in Chinatown. It's violent, frantic, and boasts plenty of trademark Uwais moves - replete with stabbing people with gun clips, slashing them repeatedly with knives, and punching them about a hundred times in a second. He's not so great with English - he has come a long way but Chan had similar problems in his earlier English-language efforts - and it sometimes feels like it should have played out in his native tongue (although he never looks visibly uncomfortable speaking English, subtitles do come in handy), and he's hardly had the opportunity to display a broad range of acting, but he makes up for almost all of this with Bruce Lee-lite levels of star power, proving absolutely captivating in action, and engaging whenever he's on screen, even if the ensemble 'acting' around him is hardly groundbreaking.

    Indeed he's surrounded by a surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly, given the angle of action over acting) kick-ass team too, with the sister of the owner of the restaurant he works at, Jenny (Li Jun Li - Quantico, Blindspot, The Exorcist TV series) absolutely magnificent in action, and the least convincing (or perhaps I just don't know enough chop shop mechanics) uncover cop C.G. (Katheryn Winnick - The Dark Tower, Netflix's Polar) somehow manages to look vaguely convincing in action against Uwais, whilst JuJu Chan (Netflix's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny) proves a truly tough-ass henchwoman. All three are a very pleasant surprise, and with the likes of Mark Dacascos (Brotherhood of the Wolf), and Byron Mann (Dacascos' partner in crime in Crying Freeman, and recently in Netflix's Altered Carbon - sensing a Netflix pattern here?) on hand, there's plenty of decent martial arts from other corners beyond Uwais - glaringly obvious fighting doubles notwithstanding. 24's Tzi Ma and Sons of Anarchy's Tommy Flanagan further chew the scenery, but, as a whole, the crew are barely enough to keep a weak and drawn out plot going - beyond the action sequences that is.

    Wu Assassins either needs fewer superpowers or better effects to justify fans giving a second season a shot

    The biggest problem is - perhaps unsurprisingly - the fantasy part. Somehow Netflix's Marvel series Iron Fist, for all its faults, both made this supernatural element work within this universe, whilst also having the budget to make it work visually. Wu Assassins completely loses it in the effects realm whenever the lead character has to go to, what will likely end up being called, the "Big Trouble in Little China" realm. Had this been a tongue-in-cheek comedy actioner, it may have worked, but this is played completely straight, so when our hero has to punch his way through a CG boulder in a land of CG misty CG streets, it pulls you right out of the actioner. Curiously, whilst boasting both Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision, Netflix are slipping a little when it comes to the latter, with darkness now back to its pervasive self - a frustrating fit for the fight scenes (though thankfully it only affects a couple), but something which might have worked to help disguise the low budget fantasy work. But, of course, that's all filmed in daylight, stupefyingly, so it looks even worse.

    Wu Assassins' mystical element is at its best when it cycles through the lead character's various 'guises' (he's instilled by a thousand monks, although the one he most commonly ends up being is, fortunately, Mark Dacascos, even though the legend barely gets a kick in himself - unfortunately), but given the trio of ass-kicking non-superpowered triptych of women in the show, it's frustrating to wonder what the show would have been like without that element? Perhaps a little bit too much like a modern-set variation of the recent adaptation of Bruce Lee's Warrior? Nevertheless, Wu Assassins either needs fewer superpowers or better effects to justify fans giving a second season a shot, even if the action quotient - and Uwais' staggering skills - will probably prove just about enough to be entertained for the duration of the first.

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