Review by C.J. Bunce
Start with the obvious comparison: Marvel’s Iron Fist. If you were disappointed with that series, get ready for what you probably wanted. It’s called Wu Assassins, and the ten episodes of the new direct-to-Netflix series arrived late this past summer. Wu Assassins weaves so much into its ten very different chapters of its storytelling, you’ll quickly find it’s not only an American attempt at a wuxia martial arts heroes show–it bends the genre into a supernatural, urban fantasy story with characters on the brink of their unique brand of apocalypse, with several Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Grimm parallels. And lots of lots of great hand-to-hand fight scenes. This may not measure up to being the next Buffy or a top Chinese tale like Legend of the Condor Heroes, but as a watch-alike, it far surpasses the Buffy spinoff Angel, as well as most of the Marvel Netflix series. If Netflix can pull together series like Wu Assassins, especially with absolute writing freedom and without the need to rely on some existing brand like DC or Marvel (or anything Disney), then its future is secured.
The world of Wu Assassins begins in our world today, as we meet Kai Jin, played by 36-year-old Indonesian actor and burgeoning martial arts pro, stuntman, and fight choreographer Iko Uwais. Kai is a young master chef who wants to own his own food cart in San Francisco’s Chinatown. This is a Chosen One story, and Kai is introduced to a world where the Chinese philosophy of wuxing is interpreted to rely on human masters of the elements of this world (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) who can exist both in this realm and a supernatural otherworld. In the middle of an already difficult life, Kai is tapped as the Wu Assassin and he is told by a bellwether and instructor from the otherworld named Ying Ying, played by Celia Au (Lodge 49, Iron Fist, Gotham), that he must kill the Fire Wu, who just happens to be Kai’s adoptive father, known by most as Uncle Six. He’s not just any dad, as Uncle Six, played masterfully by the scene stealing Byron Mann (The Expanse, Arrow, Smallville, Dark Angel), is also the head of the Chinese crime family, the Triads.
Kai’s Buffy-esque band of friends includes a restaurant owner named Jenny Wah (Li Jun Li, The Exorcist, Quantico), her drug-adled brother Tommy (Lawrence Kao, Sleepy Hollow, The Walking Dead), and Kai’s oldest friend Lu Xin (Lewis Tan, Iron Fist, Deadpool 2), who is a suave up-and-coming thief of high-end cars. Spliced into the story is a San Francisco cop played by The Vikings queen Katheryn Winnick, a badass on a motorcycle who knows her own street fighting and inadvertently witnesses the magic of the otherworld while undercover trying to bust gang activity at China Basin. These lead characters are just the beginning, as the series packs in a few seasons’ worth of ideas, and all of it is great fun.
This series as a whole is refreshing, and each new episode full of surprises. It’s as if the writers walked into the room for each episode and asked “what’s the coolest thing we can think of?” and then challenged themselves to work that idea into the world of the Wu. So you’ll see some… Highlander (!?) activity thanks to brilliant baddie Alec McCullough (Tommy Flanagan, Westworld, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Gotham, Gladiator), and get your genre fanboy/fangirl fix thanks to fan favorite actress Summer Glau (Firefly, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Arrow). You’ll also meet Zan Hui, a great villain like those we loved in Marvel’s Luke Cage, a manipulative henchwoman with the ferocity to back it up, played by Juju Chan (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny).
Many television series across the decades are boosted by being set in the endlessly photogenic San Francisco, and this is no exception. The only distraction is a soundtrack filled with unrelated, overblown songs with lyrics that will sometimes spin you outside of the world of the show. The best episode was directed by co-star Katheryn Winnick, an episode titled “Legacy” taking some of the characters on a fieldtrip in pursuit of a Wu in Oregon. She makes great use of the Western Oregon landscape, and her scene set in a diner is a must-see. It also is the episode that will leave Grimm fans hoping for another season, featuring guest star Kevin Durand (3:10 to Yuma, Walking Tall). Keep an eye out for Jeff Fahey (Silverado, Legends of Tomorrow, Grimm) as a retired cop. Best of all, fans of the Food Network will be happy to see the role played by real-world kung fu champ (and TV host) Mark Dacascos.
Diehard TV buffs should also recognize the great Hong Kong-American actor Tzi Ma (24, Angie Tribeca, The Man in the High Castle, Star Trek: The Next Generation) as Kai’s neighbor Mr. Young.
In many ways, Iko Uwais, who had a cameo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and will co-star in the next G.I. Joe movie, Snake Eyes, plays his hero role like a young Bruce Willis, an everyguy trying to make his way through each day, not wanting the actual future of the world resting on his shoulders. His performance will leave you wanting more–Will he one day become the next member of the Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, etc. fight club?
Great worldbuilding, top-tier story writing compared to its peers, and a slate of acting talent you’ll want to see more of–Wu Assassins is among the year’s best new series, and tops the fantasy on television you should try this year. All ten episodes are streaming now on Netflix.