Probably the most interesting thing about streaming a series as part of a paid subscription as opposed to network television, or even basic cable, is the freedom a show has to expand itself out into anything it wants to be.
There’s no advertiser to appease who needs everything to follow tried formulas. A practical case study in this freedom is the new Netflix show Wu Assassins. It’s a true genre jumping extravaganza that mixes the crime drama with action, sci-fi, and fantasy.
Whether or not all of this meshes perfectly is another matter, but there’s no doubt it’s one of a kind, and if you’re in the right state of mind, it’s some entertaining stuff.
The story’s main character, Kai-Jin, is a food truck chef who happens to be an amazing martial artist and have family ties to the Chinatown mafia.
Sounds like the plot to every Steven Seagal movie mixed together, right?
Kai-Jin is played by Iko Uwanis, who has been kicking people in the face onscreen for a while now, with notable roles in the action spectaculars Triple Threat and The Raid. Kai Jin, (whose name is likely a nod to David Carradine’s Kwai Chang Kane from Kung Fu), gets himself into a serious pickle when he stands up for a man who some high level gangsters are picking on in a bar.
Things snowball, and he finds himself being pursued by said gangsters with his only hope for protection being his mobster Uncle Six.
That is until another hope for protection pops up. Here’s where things get weird.
A word to the wise: don’t try to understand Wu Assassins. I mention these fragments of a plot only as a formality, I don’t imagine you’ll need them for anything. Kai Jin is quite abruptly approached by an ancient, supernatural protector of the world, who is part of a long line of world protectors.
Those who are given this power on earth are essentially possessed by one of these ghost warriors and given the ability to kick some serious ass against anyone and everyone, with near Matrix levels of untouchability.
Still with me?
Wu Assassins is probably best described in terms of the classic programs it channels, even if it’s unintentionally. So, think Quantum Leap if Scott Bakula turned into Kwai Chang Kane in every single episode. Oh yeah, and Kwai Chang Kane is played by action movie veteran Marc Dascascos (the John Wick superfan in John Wick 3).
This allows the Wu Assassins mortal host to move around undetected. Of course there’s other immortal Wu Assassins around, including Uncle Six and the Scottish guy who is sort of an unofficial Highlander reboot. Let’s just say the plot is convoluted and move on.
What’s much easier to appreciate is the fight scenes. They are the center piece of every episode, and the exciting part is waiting to see when and where they will spring up. When they do, they’re some bare knuckle brutality of the highest order.
This is highly choreographed fight and stunt work that would put most action films to shame. It’s seldom to see a show, even an action-based one deliver this kind of care and attention to extended hand to hand battles. Each one is a little bit different from the one before it. Things move fast, but never resort to camera or editing trickery, it’s all top notch stunt work.
Iko Uwais does an Indonesian martial art known as pencak silat, which has a unique look to it in the world of onscreen brawling; lots of kicking, throwing, stabbing, and snatching various items laying around the room to turn them into instruments of death. It’s fast paced and beautifully done.
If you’ve seen any of Uwais’ work before you know what to expect, and it’s a fine thing.
The show excels so much in this department that it can’t help but slip a little in the others. Any time things catch on fire, blow up, or the portal to the assassin dimension opens up a little, we’re treated to some of the most atrocious CGI this side of the SyFy channel. But we can’t care all that much because we know it will be a pretense for another dazzling battle.
For better or worse, the plot and mysticism that show spends most of it’s time on is only the lattice work for more great fight scenes.
It’s an easy recommendation for action fans, and the constant effort to up the ante in the group combat is at times reminiscent of Jackie Chan’s best work.
Let’s hope there’s a season two, but hopefully with a little more time spent in the writer’s room.
Mike is our staff film writer, mediocre guitar player, and filmmaker. He graduated from Temple University with a degree in Film and Media Arts, and continues to adore films of all stripes and other unidentified markings-but with a natural preference for ninjas and demons. He’s that guy who was downtown shrieking obscenities at the lamp post when they let Rob Zombie remake Halloween.