This is a mostly spoiler-free review for all 10 episodes of Wu Assassins, which premiered August 8 on Netflix.
Starring renowned martial artist and movie star Iko Uwais (The Raid films, The Night Comes for Us), Vikings’ Katheryn Winnick, and Sons of Anarchy’s Tommy Flanagan, Netflix’s curiously brutal Wu Assassins is almost what would happen if someone rebooted John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China without the Jack Burton character. Or the smirky B-movie charm.
When the fists and feet fly — and the thrown knives get caught and the fired bullets get dodged — Wu Assassins is the fierce and formidable fighting series that Marvel’s Iron Fist should have been. The skirmishes slyly lean into the supernatural, allowing a food truck chef (Uwais) to become infused with the might of a thousand warrior monks so that he can protect San Francisco’s Chinatown from evil elemental warlords. But when the paint dries and all we’re left with is the human drama, the series sags and the story sometimes strains to keep us invested.
That being said, the season definitely builds up steam and gets more interesting as it progresses. By Episode 5, “Codladh Sámh,” the world opens up and the dangers don’t feel so insulated and obtuse. The mythology expands and flashbacks reveal how innocent random people in the past were infused with Wu Xing – pieces of an enchanted tortoise shell that represents the five elements of the material world.
Those who absorb a Wu Xing become a darkened, corrupt version of themselves, capable of wielding the power of that particular Wu element. The chosen “Wu Assassin” (think Vampire Slayer, Highlander, etc.) is given the combat ability to defeat the five Wus, though the newly acquired powers don’t always guarantee victory. The first half of the season focuses on one Wu, in particular, in Chinatown, while the second half blows up the story a bit, for the better, and brings in a more global threat.
At the chewy center of this torrent is Uwais’ Kai (who’s chosen as the Wu Assassin) and his childhood friends Lu Xin (Iron Fist’s Lewis Tan), Jenny (Quantico’s Li Jun Li), and her brother Tommy (Sleepy Hollow’s Lawrence Kao). Kai was taken in by a local crime lord, Uncle Six (Hell on Wheels’ Byron Mann) as an orphaned child, and now Six and his influence affects all of their lives in some regard. The series’ best aspects, aside from the awesome, over-the-top fight choreography, is the evolution of Six and how much the dynamic between him and the four heroes changes and morphs throughout.
Aside from this, however, the non-supernatural aspects of the series can be a drag. Winnick’s undercover cop, C.G., who’s tasked with bringing down Six’s crime lord rival, Alec McCullough (Flanagan), is the outsider who gets caught up in the crusade, but ultimately her involvement doesn’t amount to much other than to bring the count of contributing heroes up to five – to match the Wus. Winnick is great, and you can see her putting her shield-maiden training to good use, but the story never quite figures out where she fits in, or what to do with her at the end.
Created by Hell on Wheels’ John Wirth, Wu Assassins often feels like a fairy tale, with special effects that vibe more with a family-oriented adventure saga. But then the fighting starts up and guys are getting stabbed in the throat and it almost seems like a different project. In fact, sometimes a character will let an F-Bomb fly and you’re reminded that “Oh, yeah, this is supposed to be rated M for Mature.”
Part of the disconnect might also come from Uwais’ Kai, who, as the hero of this superhero origin tale, is given the most stale and stilted dialogue of all the characters. In fact, there are many moments where we get other people talking all around him as if he isn’t in the room. But once Uwais starts slinging the silat — the Indonesian and Malay fight discipline featured in the Raid films — he shines like a supernova.
Wu Assassins is a modestly fun martial arts series that features a ferocious flurry of fists and feet, webbed together by some stunning fight choreography (Iron Fist should have been like this). Unfortunately, the blandness of the hero, and pretty much everyone else, during peacetime stops the series from achieving greatness.