‘Wu Assassins’: If Only the Script Could Keep Up with the Fists

     August 11, 2019

wu-assassins-celia-au-iko-uwais-slice*Spoilers for Netflix’s Wu Assassins ahead* 

Let’s start with the positives, shall we? Netflix’s Wu Assassins whoops ass. I mean that literally. Thanks to the combined efforts of director Stephen Fung, star Iko Uwais, fight choreographer Dan Rizzuto, and an army of stunt maestros, the martial-arts fantasy series features some of the most dazzlingly impressive fists-and-feet throwdowns you’ll see on a screen this year, big or small. There was a moment deep into season 1 when tried to make a GIF of Uwais dodging two goons during a brawl but the result was too shoddy to Tweet; not because of the show, but because Uwais was moving too fast for the frame rate. Luckily, co-star Lewis Tan put the moment on the internet himself and like, holy shit, my dudes.


Luckily, all the action is clear as day in the moment. You won’t find an Iron Fist situation here, where the editing bay had to take a katana to the footage to make it look like Finn Jones fights like a real human boy. Fung—a veteran Hong Kong director who also brought his unique brand of violence to the states as producer and fight coordinator on AMC’s Into the Badlands—and directors like Toa Fraser (Daredevil), Michael Nankin (Van Helsing), and Roel Reiné (Knightfall) know how to frame some fisticuffs. It’s one thing to stage a good fight and another to keep it clear among the flying limbs just what the hell is going on. 

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Image via Netflix

Unfortunately, even the most impressive fights can’t fend off a clunky script. Story-wise, Wu Assassins is one of the clunkier clunks to hit Netflix in a good long while. On the surface, it’s a simple chosen-one narrative. Unassuming San Diego chef Kai Jin (Uwais) is suddenly tasked with becoming the Wu Assassin, a mystical title given to the person burdened to stop the five evil people in possession of the five elemental Wu Xing powers: fire, water, earth, metal, and wood. Complicating matters a bit are the facts that A) The Fire Wu turns out to be Uncle Six (Byron Mann), Triad leader and Kai’s adopted father, and B) Kai’s spiritual guide, OG Wu Assassin Ying Ying (Celia Au), is the most unhelpful mystical mentor since drunk-ass swamp Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. She mostly just urges Kai to not feel conflicted about murdering a loved one before abruptly saying “I actually have to go now” about halfway through the season. It’s much funnier than intended.

A lot is much funnier than intended throughout Wu Assassins season one, thanks in large part to creators Tony Krantz and John Wirth‘s decision to play this bad boy absolutely straight. The cast is uniformly fantastic across the board—Uwais is one breakout from becoming a mega-star and the charming-as-hell Lewis Tan is basically tailor-made for the big-screen MCU—but they can’t do much with thudding monologues that use chemistry textbook-level efficiency to explain mythology. Poor Au has to stumble, humorless, through this Wiki-page word salad in episode 6:

There is a poison made from the venom of various animals. It’s called Gu. If you bless each animal with the blood of someone touched by the power of the Wu, a still-living victim, it will enhance the Gu. And Gu, if ingested, will force a struggle within the body of the Wu Xing holder. A struggle for the soul. The culmination o that struggle will cause the Wu Xing to be expelled from the body.

And after all that explaining, the concept of the “Gu” is used once and never mentioned again. That’s the other frustrating part of Wu Assassins, it cherry-picks parts of its own mythology whenever it suits the story but doesn’t combine it into a cohesive whole. The power of the Wu Assassin, for example, is supposed to imbue Kai with the power of 1,000 warrior-monks who came before him. This is an extremely badass way of saying Kai occasionally has the face of Mark Dacascos—who, it should be noted, is himself extremely badass—but really only amounts to Kai being pretty good at fighting. Not supernaturally good, just as good if not a little better than his friends Lu Xin Lee (Tan) and CG Gavin (Katheryn Winnick), a car thief and undercover cop, respectively.

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Image via Netflix

Earnestness can work with world-building—it certainly did for Netflix’s absurdly straight-faced, dearly departed The OA—but not when it’s as inconsistently utilized as it is here. That shoddiness leads to a season 1 ending that feels almost tacked on, a streaming service-mandated cliffhanger. Kai has defeated the season’s Big Bad, the Wood Wu Alec McCullough (a delightful, mustache-twirling Tommy Flanagan), who would have upset the balance of time itself by returning to the past to be with his long-dead family. The various Wu Xings restored, Kai, his adopted siblings Jenny (Li Jun Li) and Tommy (Lawrence Kao), and Lu Xin sit down for a family dinner, seemingly unaware there’s still 12-ish minutes left in their Netflix series.

Of course, the Earth shakes, the ground trembles, and the restaurant collapses around them as Ying Ying returns—seemingly in the flesh, not on the spiritual plane—to tell Kai “it’s not over yet, the world still needs the Wu Assassin.”

Which, sure, but since we spent 10 episodes somehow learning so much and so little about being a Wu Assassin at the same time, there’s nothing personal to this cliff-hanger. It speaks to the pitfalls of the Netflix model as a whole, where it’s hard to become personally invested in the moments of a story that wants you to keep moving on as fast as possible, but with Wu Assassins, that problem is amplified by the fact that road is too rocky to ever really get a hold in the first place. Especially because, in true chosen-one fashion, Kai’s qualifications for the role pretty much begin and end with being a relatively good dude.

Now, there’s no guarantee there will even be a Wu Assassins season 2; with no trustworthy viewership data, it’s impossible to tell who the service will swiftly cancel and who it’ll give a cool $200 million to. But if Wu Assassins does return, I’ll be there for those fights—man, those fights rule—with the hope that its script can finally keep pace with its fists.

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