Have you ever seen the Donnie Yen movie, Iceman? It’s about a warrior who is frozen in ice and awakens in present-day Hong Kong where he really has to pee — and then he starts fighting some other people who were also frozen in ice. It silly and dumb and has swiss cheese for logic, and yet it’s held together entirely by the charisma and talent of the cast. For some reason I love that bonkers movie — which in a round about way brings me to Netflix’s supernatural martial arts series, Wu Assassins. There are two things I know to be true about this show. One: It isn’t a very good show by most standard measures (plot, mythology, dialogue, editing, special effects, making a lick of sense, etc.). And two: I love it anyway. I like it for the things it happens to do well (mostly the fighting, the outstanding cast, the hip-hop soundtrack, and the intentionally unabashed throwback 90s cheesiness of it all), and I like it in spite of all the things it doesn’t do well. Heck, I might even like it because of the things it doesn’t do well. It’s inspired by Hong Kong martial arts movies and (some very loose) Chinese mythology, but to me it looks like a love letter to B-grade action flicks — the sort of things that used to be dominated by men like Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, only instead of white guys appropriating martial arts for their masculine fantasies, we have a majority Asian cast (and several ass-kicking women) taking the spotlight. In an era where shows like The Terror: Infamy and movies like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell are demonstrating that there is a place in Hollywood for uniquely Asian — and specifically Asian-American — stories, Wu Assassins shows that those stories don’t necessarily have to be prestige ones, or well-told ones, or even smart ones. Sometimes they can just be popcorn-chomping ridiculous fun.
Mild Spoilers For The Full Season of Wu Assassins Ahead…
Kai (Iko Uwais, The Raid) is a chef with a dream of operating his own food truck on the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, until one day he becomes
The Chosen One the Wu Assassin, thanks to a glowy bit of turtle shell and a mysterious adviser named Ying Ying (Celia Au, Lodge 49) who only talks to him on a spiritual plane. She tells him that he’s been chosen to save the world from the Wu Xing: bearers of 5 elemental powers (Fire, Water, Earth, Metal, and Wood) who are bad enough on their own, but if their powers combine it’ll have catastrophic consequences. And what special powers does a Wu Assassin have? Um, well, basically some enhanced fighting techniques and magic resistance, thanks to the combined spiritual protection of 1000 holy monks who gave up their ghosts for the cause. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen Iko transform into John Wick 3’s Mark Dacascos, and that’s basically the only real gimmick of the conceit — that the monks can help Kai protect his identity. For the record, Dacascos is the only one you ever see pull this trick, really, and it’s taking all of my willpower not to crack an Iron Chef joke right now. But really, the Wu Assassin’s powers are simply the ability to fight like goddamn Iko Uwais, and trust me — that’s MORE than enough. The man is a marvel, and you can tell the difference in the way his fight scenes are shot because the camera can pull back to show off his (incredibly fast) moves without relying on close-ups and heavy editing to do all the heavy lifting. If nothing else, this series provides the actor the kind of platform he deserves.
But like Harry Potter and his Hogwarts chums, Kai isn’t alone in this battle for the sake of humanity. He’s got his childhood crew of Chinatown friends by his side, including siblings Jenny (Li Jun Li, Quantico) and Tommy Wah (Lawrence Kao, The Originals) and car thief Lu Xin (Lewis Tan, Into The Badlands), as well as an undercover vice detective named CG (Katheryn Winnick, Vikings, who also got a chance to direct an episode!). His first Wu warlord is the head of the local Triad, a man named Uncle Six (Byron Mann, who is effortlessly charming and also starred as Ryu in Street Fighter, which almost seems too appropriate). Six possesses the Fire Wu, and also happens to be Kai’s adopted father, throwing a wrench in his duties to kill all the warlords.
Dealing with Six takes up the first half of the 10-episode season, which places a real-time crunch on Kai’s completion of his mission, and the rushed back half has to introduce the other four Warlords and wrap this story the hell up. Did I mention the pacing of this show is a problem? Because it’s a problem. The show tries to balance the Wu mission with the personal stories of the friends — Jenny’s overbearing parents, Tommy’s drug addiction, Lu Xin’s criminal connections, and Uncle Six’s struggles to maintain his hold on both the Triad and Chinatown. Sometimes this works in the show’s favor, as it wisely dispenses with the requisite Wu Assassin training montage in like 2 minutes, because Iko Uwais literally doesn’t need some ghost to teach him how to fight, dammit. On the other hand, there were several occasions when I thought my Netflix app had accidentally skipped an episode because the show likes to jump around in time — a stylistic trick I typically don’t mind, provided it isn’t pointlessly confusing. By the time the final Wu is revealed to be freakin’ Summer Glau, appearing in what amounts to a glorified cameo, I was left just shaking my head in bafflement. Sure, she probably only agreed to a limited appearance, thanks to her Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles connection — the co-creator of Wu Assassins, John Wirth, was an exec producer on Sarah Conner — but still. I had to sit through a bunch of needlessly convoluted Scottish gang junk — which I spent at least 2 episodes thinking was actually Russian gang junk, and honestly, I’m still not sure there wasn’t a Russian gang in this as well — only to have Summer Glau dangled and then wasted before my very eyes?
Then again, at least I got to see her. And that’s a win in and of itself.
There are a lot of frustrating details like that I could get bogged down railing against, but for every complaint I could lodge, there’s always another moment that made the entire viewing experience worth it to me. The show builds up to an epic battle between the three main women — Jenny, CG, and Six’s fierce enforcer, Zan (JuJu Chan, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny) — only to make the baffling choice to shoot the entire thing in the dark so you can barely tell what’s happening. But on the other hand, it gave us an earlier fight where Zan wraps her leg around Jenny’s neck like one of those Vaudeville hooks pulling bombing performers off-stage, and it’s incredible. There’s a bizarre road trip that seems to eat up far too much of the season’s runtime, but it includes a scene where Six schools a bunch of hick racists in the history of Chinese immigrants in America that’ll make you want to punch your fists in the air. The particulars of the mythology rarely add up and the plot is absolute nonsense, but the actors sell the crap out of it all anyway.
So should you watch it? If you’re the kind of person who will be easily frustrated by flaws, then no. But personally, I’m glad I did — and I hope Netflix runs with the cliffhanger ending and gives this the second season it’s waiting for. Because here’s the thing: the show took some impressively big swings in trying to create an original fantasy showcase — and so what if it fell on its face sometimes in the process? It also did a whole lot right. It gathered together a phenomenal cast, crafted its own unique visual style, featured some pretty incredible fight choreography, and even the nonsense plot was enjoyably nonsensical. I’d like it to have the chance to go further with all those things, because I’d like to continue watching those elements — and because really, if Netflix is going to bring Fuller House back for a fifth (fifth!) season, then their bar for quality is negligible anyway. Point is, there’s something to be said for throwing logic out the window and having some good, cheesy fun once in a while. Or at least I think so. And Wu Assassins gets me.
Header Image Source: Netflix