Review: Wu Assassins Season 1

Review by James Stone

Wu Assassins is a martial arts fantasy show set in current day San Francisco. Our lead character, Kai Jin, is an ordinary chef trying to run a food truck when he is bestowed the power of the Wu Assassin; an ancient power created by 1000 warrior monks, to fight elemental powers and keep the balance of the Wu Jing. As crazy as that sounds the show is still heavily grounded in reality and the fantasy elements are more plot drivers, as opposed to the main focus. Strip back the crazy, make believe powers, and what you get is a show that is built on emotions, relationships and personal struggles in a modern world. All of this is then enhanced and polished with fantastic martial arts.

Cast

A young, vibrant, incredibly talented and virtually all Asian cast set in San Francisco China Town. Our lead character Kai Jin is played by Iko Uwais, a martial arts expert from Indonesia. Best known for the lead role in Gareth Evan's popular movies The Raid 1 & 2.

Kai Jin's best friend is the charismatic Lu Xin, played by British Chinese actor Lewis Tan.

As with most of the cast Tan is a talented martial artist, having previously demonstrated this on the TV shows Iron Fist and Into the Badlands. He was also the 'better than you at everything' Shatterstar in Deadpool 2.

Christine Gavin is an undercover police officer played by one of the only non Asian cast member to feature predominantly. Nonetheless Katheryn Winnick can hold her own when it comes to on screen scuffles. She demonstrates this as the tough as nails shield-maiden Lagertha in the TV series Vikings. I have been waiting to see more from her and, although I didn't get my wish to see her as the big screen Black Canary, her performance in this show demonstrates once again how perfect she would be.

Uncle Six runs China town and is set up as the main villain at the start of the show. He's played by the brilliant Byron Mann, an actor with a long resume in both TV and film. I instantly recognized him as Yao Fei from the TV show Arrow, the man who trained Oliver Queen.
Uncle Six's trusted sidekick/bodyguard is the very scary Zan, played by JuJu Chan. I didn't know anything about this actress, but looking at her IMDB it's full of martial arts related TV and film, and you can tell she has all the right experience. Wow, what an on screen presence she has! Not only is her image outstanding, but she can fight with the best this show has to offer.

Assisting Kai on his journey are childhood friends; brother and sister Jenny and Tommy Wah. Jenny is played by Li Jun Li, predominantly a TV actor from Chicago PD, Blindspot and The Exorcist. Tommy is played by Lawrence Kao who has had roles in The Walking Dead, The Originals and The Purge.

Story

The structure to Wu Assassins isn't that original: An ancient power has been unleashed and we must find a 'chosen one' to help stop the impending danger. This is the formula used in most super hero movies today, but no-one can argue it's a winning formula. The strongest piece of originality from this story was how the Wu Assassins face changes to that of one of the 1000 monks who created the power. Doing this protects the identity of the Wu Assassin and acts as a costume, without having to wear one. This unfortunately disappeared from the show mid way through the season, and I'm not sure if this was due to the fact that everyone was aware Kai was the Wu Assassin so there was no need to hide his identity anymore, or if it was down to budget? I often find with TV shows that when we delve into the supporting characters the story starts to suffer and the audience loses interest. This show is one of the few series I can think of that got that balance right. I actually wanted to see more of Lu Xin, Jenny, Tommy and Christine... and thankfully we did. What was done so well was that we only got little snippets of their lives and back stories, rather than entire episodes learning about their past, which holds up the momentum of the main story.

Fights And Effects

As the show explores people bestowed with elemental powers, there were plenty of special effects and a ton of CGI. These were hit and miss over the course of the series. During an episode with the Wood Wu there are some really eye catching effects, using plants and the earth. There are also some scenes with the Fire Wu which I felt it could have looked better. Perfectly acceptable for TV budget level effects, but not the best.
The fighting on the other hand I cannot criticize. With a cast featuring Iko Uwais, Katheryn Winnick and Lewis Tan, I had high expectations. These were met and exceeded on a number of levels. Iko rose to fame in the movie The Raid. This was the film I believe mastered the art of the hallway fight scene. Every show or film today now has this as a standard, from the Marvel Netflix shows, the CW DC shows, and even the recent movie blockbuster Hobbs and Shaw. All contain hallway fights, but none even get close to the speed, intensity or technicality of what The Raid delivered. Wu Assassins is the first show to not only replicate this, but arguably elevate it. Huge credit is due to director Stephen Fung and Choreographer Dan Rizzutu, for putting together long sweeping single shot fight sequences in a vast variety of locations. Yes, at times it felt like people were fighting for the sheer hell of it, but I don't care when it looks this good. Something that makes this show stand out is the sheer amount of talented fighters on display. Other shows like Daredevil or Arrow are almost entirely reliant on the titular character delivering all the big scenes. When Wu Assassins has Lewis Tan, Li Jun Li, Byron Mann, JuJu Chan and Katheryn Winnick, who can all deliver explosive and impressive scenes as Iko Uwais does, it makes for 10 episodes of action-packed excellence.

Look And Feel

A refreshing change for a show is to be set somewhere other than New York. Arguably the coolest looking show of 2019; from the outfits, to the haircuts, everything about this show just drips with style. Costume designer Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh did a great job in dressing a cast of beautiful people in slick, smart and stylish outfits. I know that this is a glorified version of ChinaTown but It looked incredible. The restaurants, karaoke bars and convenience stores all looked authentic, yet vibrant and dripping in neon.

Conclusion

I have completely and utterly fallen in love with this show, but I will be real for a minute. I know that it won't be for everyone, and I know some people will find fault with it. No, the story may not grip people to the edge of their seat like The Wire or Homeland did. It's not going to get all the award talk of Breaking Bad or The Handmaid's Tale. It doesn't have the high end budget to deliver visuals like Game of Thrones or Westworld. However, it does have the best martial arts you will find on TV, which is something that none of these other shows even get close to. Oh... and it's always entertaining. This is a very unique show, which is very hard to find in a world of very beige looking TV. People scream all over social media for diversity and inclusion... well here it is. An Asian cast set in ChinaTown San Francisco, as a Netflix flagship show. It gives us a glimpse into a world most people will never see. What it also has is an incredible, likable cast, delivering fantastic performances. It tackles real life issues too; Tommy's struggle with addiction is as compelling as anything else on TV right now. Getting performances like this in and around an action packed martial arts show makes Wu Assassins stand out as something very, very special.
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