CREATED BY: John Wirth and Tony Krantz
STARRING: Iko Uwais, Katheryn Winnick, Byron Mann, Lewis Tan, Tommy Flanagan, Tzi Ma, Lawrence Kao, Celia Au, Li Jun Li, JuJu Chan, Mark Dacascos and Summer Glau
A warrior chosen as the latest and last Wu Assassin must search for the powers of an ancient triad and restore balance in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Set in Chinatown, San Francisco, we follow Kai Jin, a chef at a restaurant where a botched order leads to him becoming entangled with the Chinese Triad and after an attempt to beat him up, he encounters a mystical spirit named Ying Ying, who gives Kai an item that turns him into the Wu Assassin, possessing the power of a thousand ancient monks in order to stop the impending threat of five Wu warlords that each possess supernatural powers of the five elements (Water, Fire, Wood, Earth and Metal) and they’re making their way to San Francisco. Meanwhile Chinatown is under the growing threat of an all-out war between the Triad and a crime boss known as Alec McCullough.
Wu Assassins had been on my radar ever since they announced during the summer last year that Iko Uwais and Byron Mann had signed up to star in supernatural martial arts series from Netflix. So finally over a year after its series order announcement, Wu Assassins is now available on Netflix and I must say that it doesn’t take long to get up and running in the first episode. We’re immediately placed into a well choreographed fight sequence and then given the exposition into what the rest of the season will focus on and the character involved.
The fight sequences could arguably be the strongest thing going for the series, as they’re well-choreographed, they’re edited together well in mixing it up with some sharp, quick cuts whilst also allowing some long cuts in particular moments in order to showcase the different moves, styles, hits, the use of knives to how guns are handled in mid-fight and some of these are showcased best in the pilot, the kitchen restaurant in episode three, an abandoned casino in episode four and a dockyard in (If I remember correctly) the dockyard in the penultimate episode, so great work from Dan Rizzuto (co-fight choreographer/fight coordinator) and Kimani Ray Smith (stunt coordinator). There’s alot of mythology and world building in the early episodes of Wu Assassins that it may use too much exposition dumping, usually though Celia Au’s character Ying Ying as she’s the mystic that attempts to train Kai Jin in the ways of becoming a Wu Assassin.
That’s not to say it isn’t interesting though, as the series focuses very much on the dynamic of family, those connected by blood and friendship. There’s several family sub-plots arcing over the season, such as Kai Jin and Uncle Six, then there’s brother and sister Tommy and Jenny Wah, as well as the friendship of Kai, Jenny, Tommy and Lu Xin. The Kai/Uncle Six dynamic is probably the most interesting as we see the friction between the two and go deep into the reason behind that as well as see if they can overcome their differences and reconcile. The Tommy/Jenny journey is one of love and understanding, despite how often one of them may fall (which most of the time is Tommy due to being a drug addict and a member of the Triad, and just also happens to be incredibly naive about certain things around him). The friendship friends together however has an interesting story that fits into the narrative of the overall plot that has either tightened their bond and made it fragile.
The performances from the ensemble are really food for what they’re given. Iko Uwais is a hero that you root for as he’s given this huge task in order to save the world, which requires him to do the one thing he’s avoided in a life surrounded by violence…kill. Byron Mann is terrific as Uncle Six, leader of the Triad and Kai’s father, who first appears to be a straight out-and-out villain but the further the season goes on the more complex a character he becomes to the viewer. Lewis Tan oozes charisma on the screen as Kai’s friend Lu Xin Lee, a car thief is connected to the Triads and Alec McCullough. Katheryn Winnick is also good as undercover cop Christine Gavin aka CG, who gets caught up in the supernatural element of it all. Li Jun Li is also really good as Jenny Wah, as is Lawrence Kao as Tommy Wah, who brings a lot of nuance to his character who can easily be found annoying but yet you can still sympathise with. JuJu Chan can be a scene stealer for some as Uncle Six’s right-hand Zan, whose steel-like nerve just captures your attention every moment she’s on screen as anything can happen. Tommy Flanagan appears to have a really good time as Alex McCullough, chewing up the scenery as the season progresses. Tzi Ma is a welcome presence as Mr. Young, a grocery store owner and Kai’s neighbour that sees all and tries to pass wisdom to Kai whenever he can, whether he chooses to listen is a different matter entirely. There is one scene in the season, that I already see being mentioned a lot and it goes without saying, but its set in a diner and takes a moment to address the identity and history of Chinese-American culture that was my favourite.
While the Wu Assassins tries to deliver the premise behind the wu elements as well as showcase them in the first episode, there’s a distinct lack of supernatural abilities being showcased as it doesn’t feature as heavily as I thought it would as some of the CG does look kind of cheesy in how it’s presented, particularly the green screen not for the sequences in cars but as backgrounds of landscapes and city skies, though the effects used for The Path are decent. Some viewers might question some uses of dialogue here and there from the script, the one that stood out for me involved Winnick’s C.G giving her backstory and it doesn’t felt off for me. Some of the story feels slightly short-handed, especially in building up this seemingly impossible task for Kai to take on the Wu’s and yet some of the Wu’s don’t feel like they’re given enough time to feel like any threat for Kai to overcome.
Wu Assassins is a high-concept fantasy-martial arts series that tick the boxes on the fight choreography and ensemble front, though some have said it’s cliched and predictable once it comes down to the quieter moments. Personally I enjoyed the majority of the character and mythology building and the ensemble overall is great and there’s some interesting potential of how they can expand upon it with a second season. 7/10