A humble chef is granted mystical powers to hunt down five powerful warlords in , a new supernatural action drama from Netflix. Unfortunately, a talented cast and terrific fight choreography can’t keep the show from sinking under the weight of its leaden, uninspired script. No martial arts series should be this much of a slog.
(Some spoilers below.)
Indonesian martial-arts star Iko Uwais () stars as Kai Jin, a Chinese-Indonesian chef in San Francisco’s Chinatown who finds himself chosen as the last of the Wu Assassins, a long line of fighters tasked with killing the five Wu Warlords. The warlords all possess elemental supernatural powers tied to fire, wood, earth, metal, and water. These powers were conferred upon them by the Wu Xing: five shards that are absorbed into the body when touched. Kai’s task is to kill the current crop of Wu Warlords, reassemble the shards, and send them back to heaven where they belong, thus ridding the world of their influence. Not that the Wu Xing are necessarily evil: we learn they reflect the character of whoever possesses them. It just so happens that bad people tend to crave the immense power they confer.
All this is set against the backdrop of the Chinese triad in San Francisco. Kai’s estranged adoptive father, Uncle Six (Byron Mann, ), heads the triad—hence the gang’s estrangement. And Uncle Six turns out to be the Fire Wu, complicating matters even further. Kai has a strong bond with three childhood friends, all of whom survived a warehouse fire as kids: Jenny Wah (Li Jun Li, ), who runs a chic Chinese restaurant thanks to a loan from Uncle Six; her brother Tommy (Lawrence Kao, ), who’d be a great restaurateur if he could kick his drug habit and the triad; and Lu Xin Lee (Lewis Tan, ), who owns a custom garage that serves as a front for the triad. There’s also an undercover cop, Christine “CG” Gavin (Katheryn Winnick, ), trying to infiltrate the triad.
Indonesian martial arts star Iko Uwais fights with the grace of a dancer.
Let’s start with what gets exactly right: stellar fight scenes. You’d expect no less with such a skilled martial artist as Uwais playing the lead; he fights with the grace of a dancer, and there are scenes where his fists are moving so fast, they’re little more than a blur on-screen. The choreography is creatively brutal, and most of the main cast members have at least some martial arts training and do their own fighting, so there’s no need for -style creative editing. JuJu Chan is a joy to watch in action as Zan, Uncle Six’s ambitious lieutenant. Chan is sometimes called the “female Bruce Lee,” and her beat-down of Jenny in an underground street-fighting ring is proof she has earned the moniker.
Unfortunately, the script is a dull, plodding mess, with gaping plot holes and almost laughably over-earnest dialogue. Much is made of Kai’s unwillingness to kill people, which frankly makes him a very poor choice for the Wu Assassin and necessitates an elaborate ploy involving a special poison to remove the Wu Xing without killing its host. Then, just as quickly as his reluctance is introduced, it’s forgotten. For some inexplicable reason, Kai takes on the face of a monk (Mark Dacascos, ) when he fights as the Wu Assassin. I mean, Dacascos is a gifted martial artist in his own right, but it doesn’t make sense to pull the focus from Uwais. And the final 10 minutes literally just tacks on a clumsy setup for a possible second season. Talk about a failed cliffhanger.
It’s such a shame, because there is enough here in terms of a potentially rich mythology to get a sense for the show this might have been. The strongest plot line involves the Wood Wu, Alec McCullough (Tommy Flanagan, ), a Scottish crime lord who wants to challenge Uncle Six for control of Chinatown. He was once a Wu Assassin, but his wife and son were killed by the Water Wu. In desperation, he became the Wood Wu in hopes of using the healing powers to resurrect his family. Instead, he has had to live five centuries without them. He has a scheme to unite all five Wu Warlords in their human hosts and open a portal into the past to reunite with his family. Never mind that doing so would apparently unravel the spacetime continuum.
If only the show had taken the time to develop equally compelling backstories for all the Wu Warlords, we might care more about them as characters. They’d certainly be more interesting villains.
While the cast is undeniably talented physically, not all of them are equally strong actors—and it takes some pretty strong acting skills to rise above a script this bad. Uwais, Mann, Winnick, Chan, and Flanagan are up to the task, as is Summer Glau (), who is tragically wasted in the small supporting role of Miss Jones, the Water Wu. But poor Celia Au () as Ying-Ying—the very first Wu Assassin and a kind of spirit guide to Kai—is stuck with all the clumsy exposition dialogue. She flounders badly.
It’s not unusual for Hong Kong action films in particular to suffer from similar faults. There, too, the whole point is to create exciting, innovative fight scenes, and those of us who are fans of the genre will forgive quite a lot as a tradeoff. But the best of those lean into the silly absurdity with joyful relish. The greatest sin commits is that it is unrelentingly grim and joyless. My advice: watch it for the incredible fight scenes and fast forward through the rest.