Wu Assassins: Season One Review
Netflix brings its new martial arts action series to our screens with somewhat mixed results. The recipe for Wu Assassins? Take a big dollop of Big Trouble In Little China, add a dash of Highlander and sprinkle with slight disappointment that the show doesn’t quite reach the potential its opening episodes would imply. Wu Assassins does get a lot of things right but ultimately falls a bit short. Merging martial arts, Triad criminal gang wars and fantasy themes together, the show takes itself a bit too seriously at times and forgets to have fun with its more outlandish elements.
Lead man Iko Uwais, star of the sublimely violent The Raid movies, as well as Netflix’s own The Night Comes For Us, is excellent as chef Kai Jin. As the titular Wu Assassin, he gets to demonstrate his considerable fight skills. His ability to kick butt was never in doubt as evidenced by the incredible action scenes in his previous films but I was pleasantly surprised by his performance in the more dramatic moments.
This is the first time I’ve seen him act outside of his native language and I was particularly impressed. His range and just general aptitude with the English dialogue is far ahead of where Jackie Chan, for example, was at this stage of his career. Uwais has always had a great screen presence and I fully expect in the future that the general public will get to know his name as well as hardcore action fans.
Playing opposite Iko Uwais as an undercover cop is Vikings star Katheryn Winnick who also co-executive produces and directs one of the episodes. An accomplished proponent herself of both taekwondo and karate, Winnick more than holds her own when the fists start flying.
The opening episode sets the story out quite nicely. We meet all the main characters and the premise of the show is set up efficiently and effectively with some excellent fight scenes. Like with most of these sort of stories, it seems that Kai is the chosen one, a Wu Assassin who must use his powers to destroy the five evil Wu. The Wu are ancient beings who each harness the power of one of the five elements: fire, water, earth, metal and wood. That’s right, wood. Sorry Luc Besson but there’s a new Fifth Element in town. Also, as in any good heroes journey, there is a guide to show Kai the way. Ying Ying is his very own Obi-Wan who imbues him with all the knowledge he’ll need to help complete his quest.
The main problem with Wu Assassins, apart from not being able to live up to its exciting fight-filled opening episode, is that its plot starts to meander halfway through the season. The actual objectives of the Wu seem somewhat cloudy. Kai has to destroy them because he’s the Wu Assassin but apart from some small time criminal activity they don’t actually seem to be all that evil. The main goal of overall villain McCullough seems to be that he wants to be reunited with his wife and son who were killed several centuries before. That doesn’t appear to be a particularly bad thing to want.
There also seems to be some confusing ideas as to what the Wu powers actually consist of. Kai’s adoptive father Six is the Fire Wu and his power is quite straight forward. He can throw fireballs and generally burn things a lot. Makes perfect sense. The main ability of the Metal Wu however is to take control over peoples bodies. Apparently this is because of all the metals that make up the human body. I would have thought this would have been the domain of the Water Wu seeing as the body is almost 65% water. Also the wood Wu’s main ability is being able to heal people. These are just some examples of the strange writing choices made.
The show has a lot of interesting cameos in supporting roles. Jeff Fahey turns up as a retired cop that CG gets information from and Summer Glau of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Firefly fame appears as the Water Wu. Tragically underused is Mark Dacascos, martial arts legend and star of Brotherhood of the Wolf and Crying Freeman among others. We learn that as the Wu Assassin Kai has inherited the powers of a thousand monks. This includes being able to take on their individual appearances to hide his identity when needed. This is demonstrated early on as Kai sees his reflection as different old bald guys. To streamline matters and be less confusing they eventually settle on Mark Dacascos as Kai’s alternate look. Some scenes flick between Iko Uwais and Mark Dacascos to show you what other people are seeing. Not once do I recall that we actually get to see Dacascos demonstrate his fight skills. This is an absolute travesty and I can’t imagine why you would cast him in a martial arts series just to have him stand about.
Halfway though the season, Kai and Uncle Six go to see the Earth Wu who is played by Kevin Durand previously seen in The Strain. For some reason he’s kidnapped a girl and is asking her questions in his basement. Deeming her unworthy he turns her into soil. It’s never quite explained exactly what it is he is up to and is soon despatched by Kai. It’s another example of the bloated middle section of the season that follows several side stories that never really seem to go anywhere. The show could have done with being streamlined, possibly losing two or three episodes from its ten episode count. This would definitely have helped the pacing.
Effects wise Wu Assassins is a mixed bag. Some of the CGI looks pretty impressive. Uncle Six’s fire magic looks pretty good on the whole but there is a lot of stuff that looks like it would be more at home in the early ’90’s. I would also question the choice to underscore a lot of the action scenes with some low quality hip hop. It’s quite jarring in places and doesn’t really fit the tone at all.
Wu Assassins' main highlight of course is the fight scenes. With Iko Uwais starring, you’d expect nothing less. What we get is pretty impressive and quite brutal in places. It’s not up to par with The Raid or the total lunacy of the nonstop action of The Night Comes For Us but it’s a good solid start. If the show gets picked up for a second season I hope they ramp up the action and really go overboard with it. If you’re going to make a martial arts based show then you should just really go for it.
Wu Assassins feels like a slick update of a 1980’s show. It’s a throwback to when TV shows were relatively uncomplicated compared to a lot of the more complex fodder we watch today. Had this show been on our screens in the ’80’s I can well imagine it would have gained a cult following. I suspect the more sophisticated and demanding audiences of today will probably find it a bit lacking. I’d be willing to give a second season a chance. The producers just need to inject a bit more fun into proceedings, up the action quota and streamline some of the mystical plot elements. Like the tasty looking dishes Kai cooks up in his kitchen, Wu Assassins is fine while you are eating it but afterwards you’ll wish you’d been served up something a bit more substantial.