REVIEW: ‘Wu Assassins’ is More Than Just Killer Fight Choreography

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Wu Assassins, a Netflix Original series, takes us on an adventure about found family, magic, and of course, martial arts when unassuming San Francisco chef Kai becomes the latest in a line of assassins chosen to protect the world.

I went into Wu Assassins fairly blind. My only exposure was cast member Lewis Tan‘s tweets showcasing the costuming and action sequences, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The opening of season one feels traditional to the martial arts action genre. It opens with the phenomenal martial artist Iko Uwais (The Raid, The Night Comes For Us) taking down baddies in a hallway as his character Kai. Close-quarters combat starts the season and is one of the stunt-choreographic strengths of the series.

As the episode continues we see Kai fight some more, upset the Triad, and learn that the closest people in his family is his friends. Then, Wu Assassins shifts straight into fantasy. Kai meets Ying Ying (Celia Au) who gives him the power of the Wu Assassin and tasks him with keeping the Wu Xing, the powers of the Wu, out of the hands of contemporary warlords, gang leaders, and the like.

Kai is gifted with the powers of 1000 monks and he works to master them in a world hidden from the human world. Immune to time, Kai practices mastering the elements Fire, Water, Earth, Wood, and Metal in order to become invulnerable when he faces their wielders; one of which is his father-figure Uncle Six.

The magical world that Wu Assassins builds out is one of its strengths. The lore that sets up the rules of the world of the Wu is tight and cohesive throughout the season’s 10 episodes. Power sets are defined through exposition that doesn’t detract from the story and we learn just how expansive this world of magic is as it permeates through time.

The only piece of the Wu Xing mythology that doesn’t seem fully realized is the use of the faces of the 1000 monks to protect himself. Kai, upon first receiving his power, is given the faces of the monks who came before him. They keep him from being discovered as the Wu Assassin. As a result, we get to see Kai wear the face of Mark Dacascos, an unnamed monk, at least for the first few episodes before the show stops using this mechanic.

With a long history in martial arts films and straight out of John Wick 3, Dacascos was a wonderful addition to the cast. Given the beautiful and exciting fight choreography and the unique styles that fit each character’s background, once his face was shown in the mirror I was waiting for Dacasco’s talent to shine.

Unfortunately, not much if any scenes feature Dacascos performing the choreography. Instead, we Kai fighting, while the scenes are intercut with moments of close-ups and falls that shift the perspective to that of his opponents and shows Dacascos’ face.

Uwais is a magnificent fighter, and a great performer as Kai, but I couldn’t help but think that Wu Assassins missed an opportunity to use an iconic talent to his fullest abilities. This complaint is extended to the underuse of Summer Glau in her role which leaves her waiting around and not using her proven ability to handle intense fight scenes.

With that said, the main cast is overflowing with athletic talent that more than makes up for underutilizing Dacascos and Glau. Making up the rest of the main cast are JuJu Chan as Zan, Li Jun Li as Jenny, Lewis Tan as Lu Xin, Katheryn Winnick as CG, and Byron Mann as Uncle Six.

From food trucks, auto-shops, a restaurant kitchen, to a fighting pit, and more, the fight choreography from Dan Rizzuto sings. Each character’s personality is matched to how they fight. The martial arts isn’t just there to create action, instead, it’s an extension of each actor’s performance and a part of understanding who their character is, even when they aren’t trained fighters like Tommy (Lawrence Kao). With elements of brawling, jui jitsu, pencak silat, and of course elements of China’s wuxia cinema, Wu Assassins uses it’s action to build out the world as much as the myth of the Wu.

While we expect actors like Tan and Uwais to excel and be given ample amounts of stunt time, it’s less common to see women receive the same depth of fight choreography. Yes, even in action films like Triple Threat. It’s so common that I’ve come to expect it, but in Wu Assassins, each woman shines and is made capable and powerful and tasked with more than just fighting each other.

All three women, Jenny, CG, and Zan fight men in the series, and in multiple cases they fight as one vs many. While Jenny and Zan fight each other repeatedly, this is not done to make them compete for the camera, rather it is done to highlight Jenny’s determination to come out from under the Triad’s thumb and assert herself.

Chan as Zan is quite possibly my favorite character and fighter of the series. Utilizing kicks that make Marvel Studios’ Black Widow look stiff, she is quick, strong, and able to use her entire body and surroundings to dispatch of those around her. Plus, Zan is loyal until it comes into conflict with her own self-preservation, which allows her to expand and grow into her own character outside of just Uncle Six’s muscle.

While I haven’t spoken much about Ying Ying, her role as wise teacher is one that subverts the trope of the wise man. One, because of her identity as a woman, and two, because she is visibly young. She is younger than Kai and definitely younger than the other charge we see her guide. This subversion of the trope is well done and is an extension of moving women to the center of this action narrative. Wu Assassins doesn’t doesn’t leave it’s female characters on the side lines but makes them vital to Kai’s success and survival as well as providing them with their own identities outside their relationship with the leading man.

On the lower notes, the special effects are rough, specifically those done with CGI and utilizing harnesses. It’s noticeable and in some places took me out of the overall story and magic of Wu Assassins. That said, by the midway point, the show finds its groove and the effects are normalized enough that they don’t detract from the story. The season shifts to more focus on individuals and away from Kai’s training with Ying Ying, where most of the magic was shown.

In addition, some of the dialogue doesn’t work with the emotions that we’re supposed to be feeling while watching specific scenes. One scene that comes to mind is the heart to heart between CG and Lu Xing. As they open up to each other and bond, there is supposed to be a weight to the scene as Lu Xing explains his scars. Instead, there is a lack of chemistry between the two. Rather than them growing closer, they seem to be trapped in a car. It’s made worse by the fact that this is the only scene between the two that lacks romantic chemistry.

That being said, Jenny and Tommy have the best connection of the season. It’s easy to buy into their relationship as brother and sister. Wu Assassins throws them into the darkest situations of the series, and while they’re experiencing them, you feel the emotion, the fear, and you learn about their dynamic as siblings. In one moment of the show, Jenny shows up to a drug den to bring her brother home.

Tommy is strung out, incoherent, and Jenny is scared but determined to save him. When she takes on the men who would keep him there, the fight is emotional. Jenny’s fighting is skilled, but beyond that, it’s emotive. She uses her fear and her sadness to fuel her in this scene, viscerally screaming as she hits. She isn’t fighting to win, she’s fighting for her brother.

While Tommy and Jenny are related by blood, the core of Wu Assassins is the concept of found family. While each of the friend group is alone for different reasons, they have and have always had each other. Kai, Lu Xin, Jenny, and Tommy, they’re a family, they’re siblings, and they’re each others’ strength.

Wu Assassins succeeds because of its characters and their relationships. While not every choice in the series makes sense to the character, Kai’s family is solid. Each one of them opens up and leans on each other whether it’s emotionally or physically in fight scenes. Their love for each guides them and gives them purpose. Kai was orphaned, Lu Xin is alone without much explanation, Jenny is expected to be perfect to make up for Tommy’s terrible choices as their parents live abroad, and through it all, they have each other. 

Overall, Wu Assassins isn’t perfect, but it is great. Season one has built out a world that feels expansive and given us a core group of characters to latch on to. I hope that the series is renewed for a second season, given the ending leaves the audience with more questions than answers. If you need a show to watch, Wu Assassins is it. It’s action-packed, magical, and filled to the brim with characters you will fall in love with.

Wu Assassins is now streaming on Netflix.

Rating: 7/10