Boxset Tuesday: Wu Assassins (Netflix)

Woker Iron Fist with better fights

Available on Netflix

Netflix is in a bit of bind these days. It’s not getting as many new subscribers as it used to, it’s got a bucket-load of debt and this year, it’s failed to come up with any top-notch new TV shows, with Russian Doll the only one seeing any real break-out success.

This wouldn’t be as big a problem were it not for the arrival of new streaming services from Disney and Warner Bros, which are stripping Netflix of its existing content and halting previous production deals. The most notable results of this so far are the cancellations of various Marvel superhero shows: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Punisher. These were among Netflix’s biggest initial draws and in their own ways, solidified Netflix’s ‘quality’ branding in the same vein as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.

So what’s Netflix to do to produce new content, stave off the competition and bring in new subscribers? Well, in the case of filling the hole left by Iron Fist, at least, it’s to come up with its own version: Wu Assassins.

Wu Assassins
Byron Mann and Iko Uwais in Wu Assassins

Woke Iron Fist

Now, Iron Fist faced a lot of criticism – mainly from delusional haters, oh yes – on various grounds: its lead character was a billionaire white boy who went around lecturing Asians on the martial arts; its fight scenes weren’t very good; and its plot wasn’t very inspiring.

So Wu Assassins feels like Netflix learning its lessons from Iron Fist’s mistakes in wokeness. For starters, it stars one of the world’s best martial arts stars: The Raid’s Iko Uwais, who plays a half-Chinese, half-Indonesian immigrant to the US, whose father died on the journey over to San Francisco. Adopted by gangster ‘Uncle Six’ (Byron Mann), Uwais grows up to become… a lowly cook. Just like Steven Seagal. Because he’s got inexplicably good Indonesian fight moves for a cook.

All the same, his life seems perfectly normal until he’s chosen by spirit girl Celia Au (Lodge 49) to receive a magically endowed dragon’s chi tortoise shell to become the latest – and last – in a long line of immortal Iron Fists ‘Wu Assassins’. They’re pledged to protect the world from the Handfive Wu – evil elementals each with their own powers and followers, who could throw the Dao out of alignment and destroy the world.

To help him do this, she endows him with the powers and abilities of the Iron Fist1,000 monks, who gave their lives to stop the Wu. And only he can defeat this underground conspiracy… while dealing with all the issues brought about by his pseudo-father Harold Meachum Uncle Six and childhood friends Ward and Joy Meachum Jenny, Tommy and Lu Xin – with a bit of help from Colleen Wing Christine “CG” Gavin (Vikings‘ Katheryn Winnick), a woman who may not be what she seems

Will Uwais embrace the way of the Wu Assassin and stop the Wu? How many of his family and friends will be killed along the way? And will he prefer looking like himself of Mark Dacascos more?

Celia Au
Celia Au in Wu Assassins

Wu Fist

Initially, Wu Assassins is exactly what you think it’s going to be. Uwais becomes the Wu Assassin. He gets to do some superb fight scenes. He discovers that one of his nearest and dearest has already been possessed by the ‘Fire Wu’, presenting a big dilemma – to assassinate or not to assassinate. And to protect his identity, he supernaturally ‘borrows’ the face of one of the monks, so spends a lot of the time looking like Mark Dacascos (John Wick 3, Crying Freeman, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven).

And it all feels exactly how most people wanted – or at least said they wanted – Iron Fist to be. Top notch martial arts fights, stripped of ‘privilege’ and with no Asian cultural appropriation, since the hero’s Asian.

After that, though, things go a bit strange. Because it turns out that the bad guys might not all be bad, they can have change of hearts – and so can the good guys.

Curiouser still is when we come across the Wood Wu (Tommy Flanagan), the series’ ‘Big Bad’, who’s basically dropped in as the latest member of the clan Macleod from Highlander and has the powerful ability to… heal? Is that right? Yes, he can heal.

Huh. It really does want to be a bit Asian. Despite hailing from Nash Bridges producer John Wirth and 24 producer Tony Krantz.

Tommy Flannagan in Wu Assassins
Tommy Flannagan in Wu Assassins

Wu what?

Indeed, for a goodly portion of the rest of the season, while there’s an occasional fight, the show ends up being more about the Dao, the balance of nature, friendship and family, redemption, the ability to change, loss, acceptance of loss, and balance within life.

In fact, there’s lots and lots of talking. Even for Uwais, who – to be fair – is a great martial artist and doing great guns in learning English, but is still slightly worse than Arnold Schwarzenegger when he started his English-language film career.

It’s a nice idea and makes the show a little more interesting than you would have thought from the outset. But it’s not exactly playing to either the cast’s or the writer’s strengths. Some of it works, but you’ll have to endure a lot of duff dialogue and daftness as a result.

Weirdly, for a show that had such a great premise (‘a man with the power and faces of 1,000 monks fights five elemental forces of nature: air, fire, metal, wood and water!’), it doesn’t do much with it. Uwais doesn’t really get to show off more than the fighting ability he had before he became the Wu Assassin. If these monks had many powers, they’re a bit lazy in showing them off.

Plus only Mark Dacascos ever gets to show up. A bit. In the first few episodes, after which they stop using him as a disguise. And they don’t allow him to do any fighting. Who hires Mark Dacascos just to have him turn up and deliver 10 lines of dialogue and stand still? Are they lining him up to do more in season 2? And why upset me by having everyone call him “old man” all the time?

Wu Assassins Season 1

Wu fooled you

The show is littered with odd choices like this. Why does Au duck out for an episode, to be replaced by Dacascos as Uwais’ spiritual guide, if she’s just going to show up later? Why did Summer Glau agree to show up for episodes nine and ten for such a small role? Was Kevin Durand really the best choice for the Earth Wu or is that some weird Swamp Thing tie-in going on? Why are Winnick’s fight scenes so bad, given she’s an ex-bodyguard and a black belt in Tae Kwon Do? How can she do car maintenance all morning without getting even her hands dirty?

And that’s before we even get to the show’s very final scenes, which are hugely random.

However, to its credit, the season never fails to hold your interest. It does throw up surprises. It is reasonably original in its concept, and there’s a depth and a richness to its mythos. It also has a reasonably nuanced bad guy who’s smarter than everyone else and who (spoiler alert) manages to achieve his goals. And if you hated all that corporate in-fighting in Iron Fist, you’ll probably find the Chinese triads are more interesting, although apparently they lead to roughly the same amount of women in underground cage-fighting matches.

Wu Assassins also tells a complete story, the ultimate ending not so much leaving the door open to the possibility of a second season as smashing a wrecking ball through a wall and then saying “Hey? Do you want to go through that beautiful door?”

Watch or not?

If you hated Iron Fist, you’ll probably hate Wu Assassins. If you hated Iron Fist for not being woke enough, you’ll probably claim to love Wu Assassins but will secretly be wondering why it’s still not as good as it should be, having ticked all the right boxes. And if you loved Iron Fist, good on you buddy – and you might just love this, too, even if you’ll have seen much of it before.

More generally – and putting Iron Fist to one side for a moment – if you love shlocky B-movie martial artists dramas with a distinct 90s syndicated TV feeling you’ll love Wu Assassins. If you love great martial arts that are slightly, but not terribly badly directed, you’ll love Wu Assassins. Otherwise, it’s probably best to steer clear of Wu Assassins. But you could have probably guessed that, couldn’t you?

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