Binge or Purge?: Wu Assassins.
Netflix’s mystical martial arts series does a lot of things right. And a few things wrong. But mostly right.
After the weary sigh that was the Rocko’s Modern Life revival, I figured I’d give Netflix another shot to earn my eyeballs. Wu Assassins looked like a ripping good martial arts extravaganza with the ever impressive Iko Uwais as the centerpiece. Having put three episodes through their paces, I found a lot to be excited about. And a few things that were markedly less exciting. On the whole, Wu Assassins showcases fantastic choreography, a vivid modern setting, and real winning performance from its stars. The highlights outshine the low points, making me ready for another helping of what Netflix is cooking up.
Wu Assassins (2019).
Kai Jin is a chef in San Fransisco’s Chinatown, working for a family friend while dreaming of opening his own food truck. Unfortunately, he’s also haunted by his own demons: as a child he was smuggled into the country illegally and became a pawn in the human trafficking trade run by the Triads. One of the big bosses unofficially adopted Kai Jin, and hoped to make him an enforcer for the crime syndicate. Kai Jin broke away, but still remains uncomfortably close to the Triad’s orbit.
When a squad of gangsters target him, he suddenly finds himself gifted with mystical martial arts powers. An ancient order of monks swore to oppose the evil Warlords of the Wu Xing, and their spirits and fighting prowess is given to one Wu Assassin every generation to keep up the fight. As Kai learns, the reincarnated powers of the Wu Xing are setting their sights on Chinatown, and only the Wu Assassin can stop them.
Episode 1: Drunken Watermelon.
Kai Jin (Iko Uwais) moonlights as a chef for his friend Jenny (Li Jun Li) while he tries to make enough money to get his own food truck started. One night, a group of Triad mobsters start a fight in the restaurant and Kai Jin defends the staff from them. For this, they target him personally. While escaping an ambush, Kai finds a young woman (Celia Au) who is apparently in trouble. When he aids her, she reveals that she is the spirit of the first Wu Assassin, and confers her power and quest upon him.
The very first scene drops us into the action as Kai battles a group of killers in the hallways of his apartment building. Those familiar with Iko Uwais from The Raid expect amazing and brutal fight scenes. Here, we get a bit family friendlier fare, but right off the bat we’re treated to excellent fight choreography. From there, the story rewinds to how Kai got into trouble, and how he goes from a guy good at kicking ass to a guy who is phenomenal at kicking ass. We finish with the same fight scene, expanded and upgraded. We also get the first instance of Mark Dacoscas (John Wick 3) subbing in for Iko Uwais. Dacascos’ bald monk is the face the bad guys see when Kai is in Wu Assassin mode. It’s a clever plot move and a great chance to change up the style of our hero’s martial arts.
The episode also showcases how great the casting is and how deep the setting becomes. Every character has a backstory and is multifaceted, and this all works together to make a living and breathing Chinatown, from the glitz of its restaurant scene to the shadows of its underworld. Iko Uwais is charming and affable, making us root for Kai Jin. He blends a bit of Jackie Chan style deprecation into his toolkit instead of playing an untouchable badass like a Bruce Lee or Jet Li character. He takes his share of punches, even when powered up, so there’s still a hint of danger in all of the fights.
Episode 2: Misspent Youth.
Kai begins the initiation into the lore and world of the Wu Assassin. His adoptive father and current head of the Chinatown Triad, Uncle Six (Byron Mann) learns from his men that they were beaten by the Wu Assassin, a bald monk who was unaccountably at Kai’s apartment building. Uncle Six then murders his own men for daring to attack Kai Jin – revealing in the process that he is the Wu Xing Warlord of fire.
The second episode shows of the uneven nature of the show’s premise. The flashbacks to Kai and Uncle Six’s past are well developed and again help to build out the world of the show. The stuff about the Wu Xing and the five elements…well, that stuff feels like Iron Fist mashed up with Avatar the Last Airbender. And not the fun TV show version. You know, the bad version. Luckily the show doesn’t get too caught up in CG chicanery, but it does feel like a distraction from the rock-solid feeling of Chinatown and the family/crime drama at the show’s heart.
Episode 3: Fire Chicken.
CG (Katheryn Winnick) an undercover cop, infiltrates the lower levels of the Triad as a car thief. She insinuates herself next to Kai Jin’s friend Lu Xin Lee (Lewis Tan) who fences cars for Uncle Six. Kai has a prophetic dream that CG is in danger thanks to his new training. Before he can intervene, Uncle Six has all the bald chef’s in Chinatown rounded up – his interview of his men causing him to believe that the bald monk may also be a chef, as Kai Jin let slip to one of their intended victims that he’s “just a chef.” Kai chooses to get intentionally caught to force a confrontation.
Another aspect of the show that has ups and downs is the pace. Ostensibly a ton of things are happening, many of them all at once. We also feel like we’re moving very rapidly to what should be the big confrontation between Uncle Six and Kai, and consequently between the Wu Xing and the Wu Assassin. But things seem to always shake out so we wind up back at square one. For all of the movement, we don’t finish the episode markedly closer to resolution. That’s good, because the other Wu Warlords are starting to appear and are not really as interesting as Uncle Six. Here again, the addition of the supernatural stuff is muddying the water for the more interesting Kai/Uncle Six story.
Binge or Purge?
Wu Assassin is a touch uneven, but when it’s good it’s great. The characters are engaging, the setting is alive, and the cast is inspired. Even smaller roles have great casting – hello Summer Glau (Firefly/Serenity) as the Warlord of water! The clash between the two worlds is a bit jarring. We’re getting a fantastic neighborhood crime drama like Marvel’s Luke Cage, but its got hand-wave mysticism of Marvel’s lousy Iron Fist. You could chuck the whole Wu Assassin bit and the show would be deeply compelling on just the human elements.
Luckily, the Wu woo doesn’t really drag everything down. If you want a martial arts extravaganza with a compelling story, Wu Assassin should suit you just fine. Binge.