Wu Assassins, on paper, is the exact sort of urban fantasy cheese I run headlong at. Iko Uwais, the astonishing lead of The Raid movies, starts as Kai Jin. An Indonesian-Chinese chef and the adopted son of Triad leader Uncle Six (Byron Mann), Kai discovers that he is the Wu Assassin. Five elemental powers have echoed down history and fallen into the hands of criminals. Only Kai, with the aid of the thousand monks’ skills and faces he now carries can stop them.
Well…I say only he….
Kai is aided and occasionally anything but aided in his quest by his adoptive family. Not just Mann’s wonderfully laconic Six either but Lu Xin Lee, Kai’s functional older brother and siblings Jenny and Tommy Wah. Lu is played by Lewis Tan, whose career has justifiably blossomed after being laughably overlooked for Iron Fist. Lu is a car thief, small time criminal and far more like Uncle Six than he wants to admit. Jenny, played by Li Jun Li, has inherited her parents’ business and is increasingly unhappy about that. Tommy, played by Lawrence Kao (Who I was delighted to discover is also a member of dance crew Kinjaz), is a heroin addict and the family member in a flat spin. In addition, they’re first investigated and then aided by CG Dill, an undercover cop played with exuberant charm by Katheryn Winnick. Throw in Celia Au as Ying Ying, the original Wu assassin and JuJu Chan as Uncle’s boydguard, Zan and you’ve got a massive cast all of whom are extraordinarily gifted at graceful forms of violence.
This could so easily have been a glorious hot mess and it is anything but. From an action point of view having athletes like this on screen pays dividends every single episode. The fights and fighting styles are used constantly to express character and drive the plot and it’s rarely been done better than it is here. A late episode, ‘Ladies Night’;, sees Zan functionally storm a Police Station and be taken down by Jenny and CG in one of the most pleasingly realistic, and gnarly, fights I’ve seen on screen. There’s precious little showboating here, just two very frightened people closing the distance with a trained killer and trying to choke her out before she murders them. Likewise the clashes between Kai and Six and a later, crowd-pleasing racist beatdown. Each fight serves a purpose, each fight feels different and each fight tells you about the people in it.
The acting and direction are no slouches either, Uwais is perfect for the mournful, dutiful Kai, balancing his relentless focus with moments of Jackie Chan like physical comedy. Mann clearly loves his work, exuding velvet toned menace as Six but it’s the main ensemble that really impresses. Kao is brilliant as the twitchy, nervy Tommy and Li Jun Li nails Jenny’s fundamental conflict effortlessly. Best of all, Tan gets to have the time of his life as Lu, a man convinced he’s bad to the bone who is, in reality, quietly an absolute teddy bear.
But where the show really shines is in the writing. An early episode sees CG and Kai sent to pick up a windshield. In two lines, the junkyard owner they visit is established as a complex, interesting character. The revelation behind why Jenny is working the underground fight circuit is impressively handled and explored with a compassion you wouldn’t expect from a street-fighting sub plot, Likewise Tommy’s struggles to get clean and even the villains, none of whom are who they first seem to be. Tommy Flanagan, yet another welcome face, is especially great as the season’s main antagonist precisely because he has justifiable grievances. Nothing is easy or simple in this world and that makes Kai’s burden all the harder to carry. Time and again the show takes a simple premise and upends it. Time and again the show surprises you and it’s characters alike.
Wu Assassins is absolutely the sort of urban fantasy cheese I love. But it’s also a fiercely well written and ambitious show that’s desperately interested in duty and found family. It engages with, although perhaps doesn’t explore enough, Kai’s heritage. It has the courage to make nothing easy and makes almost no missteps in its exploration of violence and its consequences. Best of all, it never forgets to have a little fun.
Wu Assassins Season 1 is on Netflix. Jack Burton would love it. And would Jack lie to you about something like this?