Iko Uwais might not be a known name to many, especially in the TV world, but he’s quickly garnered a lot of attention since he fought through an entire apartment building in The Raid: Redemption. A martial artist with a knack for expert choreography, Uwais has more than proven himself as a capable fighter – and with Wu Assassins, he aims to impress with more than just his skills with his fists. Unfortunately, this mystical martial arts series does itself no favors by pushing its star into an ensemble and then drowning him out with a needlessly convoluted story line – all stitched together with some immaculately staged action beats that are far too few and far between.
Wu Assassins delivers the martial arts goods, but the all too-familiar Saturday morning cartoon plot ultimately holds it back.
Everyone will – and should – be coming to Wu Assassins for some martial arts action. Assuming it’s not already evident with the opening scene, there will be lots of bones to break and blood to spill. Each fight is orchestrated for maximum impact. The camera moves with the action as opposed to other films that treat the camera like an extension of limbs. This method is what brings a lot of Uwais’ pencak silat fighting style the cinematic feeling of being in the thick of the action with the fighters. It also doesn’t matter if its Uwais or any of the rest of the cast fighting – they all absolutely bring their A-game, which makes a lot of the rest of the series feel stifled, losing its footing anytime it turns away from its action.
Unfortunately, there is no denying that Wu Assassins drops the ball pretty hard when it comes to its storytelling. Kai (Uwais), a chef with dreams of starting his own food truck, is thrust into a showdown in San Francisco with mystical powers beyond his comprehension. Now the Wu Assassin (the chosen one, if you will), he hatches a plan to restore balance between the different Wu’s. Alongside him are his closest friends and some new allies, bringing together an ensemble that has fairly decent chemistry with each other throughout the entirety of its ten episodes.
Where that chemistry drags is in all the sub-plots padding out the overarching narrative. What is basically a show about one guy taking on four powerful people, becomes one where characters are given a single defining trait in order to create the most basic of archetypes – like Tommy Wah (Lawrence Kao), the heroin addict who is a constant disappointment to everyone around him. There are characters that feel less obvious, but their arcs are often muddled by the show’s decision to mess with the chronology of events for “dramatic effect” or the cartoonish way it handles storytelling. For better or worse (often worse), Wu Assassins treats its narrative like a Saturday morning cartoon – in fact, its closest comparison point would be an animated show like Jackie Chan Adventures, but Wu Assassins is too serious to effectively embody the true absurdity of that claim.
Those cool tricks it tries do tend to lead to more memorable episodes. The eighth episode follows different characters in the same situation, messing around with the chronology of scenes until there’s a full picture. Unfortunately, it never feels like there is any significant reason as to why scenes are edited in that way. Horror moments such as in the Earth Wu’s storyline or even brief moments in other stories are so brief, they just feel like neat ideas someone had that didn’t go beyond the pitching stage (which is what strings a lot of the fights together, as well).
There just seems to be too many times when the plot tries to fit something in that just doesn’t seem necessary. At one point there is a history lesson on Chinese-American people that seems like an important topic, but is ultimately just a rant followed by a fight, none of which really offer much to the story itself.
What’s most disappointing is that Wu Assassins has great performances all around. Each Wu is helmed by a more-than-capable actor ready to bite deep into some mystical martial arts tale. It’s what makes Uwais’ performance feel noticeably flat is he isn’t quite on the same level acting-wise as everyone else involved. It is very clear that the choreography and stunts were his main focus when working on the show, and as someone creatively involved he just might not have had much direction in how to get a better performance from himself. His character is sort of hollow as well, with much of his backstory shared by other characters, providing them with the ability to take the weight off of him narratively. Instead, he mostly just deals with uncle issues.
Everything about Wu Assassins seemed like it would be a lot of fun. It’s got a silly enough premise to lend itself to some entertaining beats, that feel ripped straight from cartoons. However, the best stuff in the show is when things get deadly serious; whether it’s the top-notch choreographed fights or the occasional horror moments within minor sub-plots, there’s usually something in every episode worth seeing. But those moments are spread so thinly that the show becomes utterly dull when they’re taken out, which leaves nothing but a dull narrative (that oddly ends with an epilogue, implying hopes for a second season) and a cast of predictable, thin characters – though one that ends with an (oddly inserted) epilogue, one teasing a more potent, exciting future for Wu Assassins not tied down by the standard-rate hero’s journey of the first season. Wu Assassins may not be Uwais’ best work, but he puts a deserved spotlight on himself as an action choreographer, and rightfully deserves to get more work bringing his stylish fighting style to the masses.