Martial arts hasn’t had the best luck on the small screen. After a not-yet-famous Bruce Lee appeared as high-kicking sidekick Kato on the short-lived 1960s series The Green Hornet, you can count the number of martial-arts series on two hands. If you want to only count the good shows, go ahead and hold one of those hands behind your back. And if you want to count just the good live-action shows, then feel free to chop a couple of fingers off the hand that’s left. There’s Into the Badlands, which just finished a three-season run on AMC, and then … hey, what’s that over there? (Probably not a good martial-arts show, whatever it is.)
Yet, for all the bumpiness of that road, martial arts movies have enjoyed a significantly smoother ride. Even beyond crossover phenomena like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, global cinema and the streaming ecosystem have made the 21st century a good one for this particular corner of action films. So it’s little surprise that Netflix, with its global aspirations and limitless appetite for trying anything once, is attempting to bridge the gap between the two and put 10 episodes of must-see martial arts on everyone’s “New Releases” carousel. Enter Wu Assassins, which launches on the streaming service today—an unprecedented vehicle for star Iko Uwais, and a telling glimpse of the fighting technique Netflix intends to deploy in its own upcoming battle royale.
If Uwais looks familiar, it’s because he starred in one the few breakout martial-arts films of the past decade, 2011’s The Raid: Redemption. Over the course of 101 minutes, Uwais used Indonesian pencak silat to dispatch with a buildingful of Bad Guys—a thrilling hand-to-hand hammerfest, conducted mostly in hallways and stairwells. Wu Assassins smartly tips its hat to The Raid by choosing to introduce viewers to Uwais at the beginning of just such a hallway skirmish. This time, though, the actor doesn’t play a babyfaced cop but a San Francisco chef, Kai Jin, who has found himself at odds with a Chinatown triad.
Well, that’s not quite right—Kai is a child of the triad in a way, having been raised by its current “dragon,” Uncle Six (Byron Mann). But after defending a chef colleague from some aggro henchmen, he receives a vision in which a mysterious woman A) imbues him with the power of a thousand monks, and B) informs him that he’s the last of the Wu Assassins. (Who among us, right?) Five warlords are converging on San Francisco, each having been corrupted by the element they embody, and it’s up to Kai to defend Chinatown by defeating them all; he takes on the appearance of an older monk (Mark Dacascos) while fighting, but Uncle Six happens to be one of those warlords, and won’t rest until he finds the mysterious old man who’s taking out his employees.
That catalyzing concept alone encompasses a film festival’s worth of martial-arts conventions, from your quintet of boss-level enemies (Five Deadly Venoms) to your elemental fighting styles taken from Taoist framework (Avatar: The Last Airbender) to your mild-mannered protagonist who finds himself in possession of mystical powers. And that’s before you get to the show’s archetype-driven plotting: Kai’s childhood friends include a car thief (Lewis Tan), an overachieving maybe-love-interest (Li Jun Li) and her heroin-addicted brother (Lawrence Kao). Add in a tough-as-nails undercover cop who expositions her pain away (Katheryn Winnick), and you’ve got a show that leaves no trope unturned.
Where the show goes awry isn’t in its fight choreography, which Uwais oversaw and—at least in the three episodes Netflix made available—is both entertaining and PG-13 enough to welcome a broad audience. No compound fractures or amputations, just professionals pummeling each other gymnastically. (JuJu Chan, who plays Uncle Six’s bodyguard, has expertise in multiple disciplines, and her setpiece in the preview episodes might just be enough to keep me around for all 10.) The problem is with most everything that happens between the fight sequences. Uwais’ charisma is unmistakeable, but it’s also necessarily kinetic; in conversation, saddled with leaden dialogue, it crumbles. (And sometimes even when he’s wielding a blade: At one point, troubled by his unasked-for burden, Kai vents his frustration by chopping vegetables. Does he do so very fast? He does. Does he yell very loudly while he chops? He does! It’s still destined to be memed into oblivion.)
Peter Rubin writes about media, culture, and virtual reality for WIRED.
There may be little unique about the premise or the production, but something more interesting lurks behind the series: Wu Assassins is what Netflix looks like when it reaches to find a new foothold in the coming streaming wars. Its close-quarters combat and clearly Canadian cityscapes are less Into the Badlands than they are Daredevil, the series that in 2015 helped make Netflix a “street-level” extension of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Daredevil and its Marvel-mates like Jessica Jones and Iron Fist have by now all been canceled, a casualty of steep licensing fees and declining ratings—yet, parent company Disney continues to develop shows for streaming platforms it owns and operates. Ghost Rider is coming to Hulu; a number of MCU characters are headed for Disney+. Faced with that void and that competition, it’s little wonder that Netflix sees a future in martial-arts action shows. (Especially shows that save money by deploying some of the cheapest CGI you’ve ever seen for the mystical sequences.)
But that future might also be one of redemption. Iron Fist wasn’t just the lowest-rated of Marvel’s Netflix shows—it was also the one that (in)famously opted to focus on a Caucasian iteration of “the world’s greatest martial artist.” It wasn’t an isolated instance in the history of martial arts on American television—you can draw a line from Iron Fist back through Chuck Norris (Walker, Texas Ranger) and Bryan Genesse (Street Justice) until you reach David Carradine roaming the land in Kung Fu—but in 2017, it didn’t go unnoticed. That’s not to say white folks can’t be black belts, but when you’re stocking your platform to reach all five elements in all four corners of the planet, a little authenticity goes a long way.