What’s The Show?Wu Assassins
What’s It All About, JG? The very best in televised martial arts meets the very worst in Netflix storytelling instincts. Kai Jin (Iko Uwais) just wants to be a chef in Chinatown, San Francisco but fate has (insert dramatic musical sting) other plans for him! After his food truck – the cutely-named Kung Foodie – is attacked by the Triad he finds a young lady in the street. Turns out she’s the first Wu Assassin, and finding Kai to be pure of heart (and slightly dull) she gives him the power to defeat five other Wu Warlords, one of whom he happens to be related to – Uncle Six (a winningly smarmy performance from the ever-excellent Byron Mann). Cue much cobbled-together mythology, one or two amazing fight sequences per episode, and some rote family drama revolving around Kai’s friend Jenny and her heroin-addicted brother Tommy. In the end, Kai must defeat The Scotsman, Alex McCullough, a criminal who runs Chinatown and has his own rote family drama to motivate him, and it all ends in a blizzard of special effects that show off the budgetary limitations, a few heartfelt scenes and a Season Two-baiting final scene that tell us the Wu Assassin’s job is not done yet. We’ll see…
Why Did You Give It A Go? There’s not a lot on TV over the summer, and it looked like it could kill a few mindless hours. Iko Uwais’s reputation also precedes him, so sure some bog-standard myth building might lead to a few kick-ass fight scenes, so why not?
Is It Any Good? When the fists are flying and the kicks are landing it’s phenomenal – some of the best choreographed fight sequences on TV I have ever seen. This constitutes around five minutes an episode though, so there’s another forty or fifty minutes to get through in the meantime, and much of it really isn’t well written. The mythology – a vague patchwork that encompasses elemental powers of water, fire, earth, air and dodgy scripting, a standard “reluctant hero’s journey” narrative, a mystical space between realties etc – never remotely coheres into anything believable and a few cast-off soap opera antics at the human level aren’t really enough to invest in.
Where Wu Assassins scores is its cast. Iko Uwais is strangely low-key as Kai – conceivably because he’s not acting in his native language – which makes the character a little hard to invest in and he never seems all that bothered about what’s going on around him. But the rest of the surrounding cast are mostly excellent. Tommy, played by Lawrence Kao, is one of those rather sad-sack losers it’s hard not to like, and as mentioned Byron Mann is excellent as Uncle Six. Tommy Flanagan as the season’s Big Bad, Alex, turns in an appropriately outsized performance despite a horrendously corny back-story, and towards the end of the season cult TV survivor Summer Glau pops up as the Water Wu, giving us access to a character we really could have stood to spend more time with earlier in the season to give a bit of scale to proceedings. All these characters make the never-beyond-standard scripting go down a little easier, and hey, those fight sequences really are amazing!
How Many Episodes Did You Watch? All of them. You could never quite call Wu Assassins compelling – because it almost never is – but it does gradually get better and better over the season’s run from a fairly non-riveting start and the cast work hard to make the material engaging.
Would You Recommend It? Not exactly. I mean, if you like seeing genuinely stunning martial arts choreography then absolutely. The physical work is astounding but the fight scenes are also extremely well directed, with a real resistance to falling into the standard genre traps of playing huge thudding soundtracks to make everything seem exciting. Mostly, in fact, there’s no incidental music and the fights are allowed to take centre-stage, which shows real restraint and skill from the directors. In those moments Wu Assassins is genuinely great. But fight scenes apart… eh. It’s not even that the non-kicking-and-punching stuff is bad even, it’s just so ordinary. An outsized villain like Alex ought to have more interesting motivation than yet another dead family – a plucky wee kiddywink and rough-but-capable lassie – taken from him unfairly.
There’s hints of some attention to detail in there – when we first meet Alex’s family and the Water Wu makes its presence known, his wife Maggie (even her name is a lazy cliché) asks if they are “kelpies”, water horses unique to Scottish mythology, and there’s an implicit line drawn between the mythologies of two extremely disparate cultures. That’s great! The show badly needs more details like that to build a coherent worldview, but instead it ends up being one dropped detail a maelstrom of other dropped details and the mythology never come close to adding up to more than the sum of its parts. The land between worlds just looks like inexpensive CGI on a run-down back-lot and no amount of mystical nonsense can make it convince. Cheap special effects aren’t a death-knell to a show like this, but more creative solutions might have been a better approach than standard “sparks fly, things glow hot” effects you’ve seen a hundred times before.
The show also badly fluffs the final episode, which makes it retroactively more frustrating to have put up with a lot of the silliness of the show when it can’t nail its conclusion. The episode is badly paced, with a big fight scene near the start, Alex killed off at about the halfway point (the episode also makes the mistake of giving his wife and child the chance to act, and both of them are terrible, a rare casting error), and the rest of the episode just padding to tie up loose ends before that “give us another season!” final ending. At time of writing Wu Assassins hasn’t yet been renewed, but sadly the last episode of the season gives Netflix little impetus to do so.
Scores On The Doors? 6/10 The fights are amazing, little else is. If there’s a Season Two I’ll watch it, but the actual storyline needs to drastically improve to make it worth sticking with, otherwise a half-hour supercut of the fight scenes would be more than enough.