A Hidden Life
It’s one of the year’s best and most distinctive movies, though sure to be divisive, even alienating for some viewers, in the manner of nearly…
Netflix is getting into the Iko Uwais Business. As of this posting, many action movies featuring the incredible martial arts work of the Indonesian should-be superstar are available to watch ("Headshot," "Man of Tai Chi," "Triple Threat," but start with “The Night Comes for Us”), with an exception of his arguably greatest projects, "The Raid: Redemption" and "The Raid: Berandal." Nonetheless, all of the films prove to be a type of welcoming mat for his excellent star vehicle series, "Wu Assassins," which Netflix is releasing on August 8 with a ten-episode season. This series harnesses Uwais' energy as both a fighter and an actor in an exciting fashion, and creates a giddy opportunity for martial arts awesomeness to flourish.
Uwais stars in the show as Kai, a Chinatown chef who stands up to a triad gang member in the first episode over a peanut issue, fighting armed men on behalf of another cook. It’s one of many ways Kai is pure of heart, like how he has resisted the gang life that has been pushed by his father figure Uncle Six (a deliciously evil Byron Mann), the kind of the impeccably dressed villain who gives a monologue before shooting a tied up man point blank. Kai just wants to run his Kung Foodie food truck, but finds himself the constant target of triad thugs, and having to protect other citizens (like Tzi Ma’s shop owner, Mr. Young), along the way.
But Kai's fighting abilities aren't all his own, and this is where “Wu Assassins” becomes like a martial arts “Shazam!” in a great way—Kai is chosen (because of that whole pure of heart thing) to carry the spirits of Wu Assassins, so that he can kill various gang leaders who are descending upon Chinatown, and have powers of the elements like fire, water, wood, etc. Periodically transported to a world that looks straight out of a tutorial passage in a video game, a woman named Ying Ying (Celia Au) tells Kai about this destiny and tries to train him, of which Kai resists. He’s not a killer, he persists, and he’s truly just a chef (this is a very Jackie Chan-like character that Uwais capably sells, of which Uwais has said “Mr. Nice Guy” is one of his favorite Chan movies). But within Kai are the spirits of monks before him (one of them played by Mark Dacascos, recognizable as the scene-stealing fanboy fighter in "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum"), and their faces become his literal disguises as Kai comes to accept his purpose.
One might think that with a project initially inspired by fight scenes that other storylines would be time to space out during a binge watch. But “Wu Assassins” is so tightly plotted and clever with its side narratives that by about the midpoint of episode two you won’t want to miss a scene. It's also thanks to the series' ensemble of memorable faces, who the give the story a personal stakes as the series blends martial arts fantasy with gangster family drama. Kai isn’t the only person essentially raised by Uncle Six, and such a backstory is played out with a sister and brother (played by Li Jun Li and Lawrence Kao) whose connection with Six has lead to a poisonous relationship of influence, threatening to destroy them in different ways. Even the expected plot line of a woman named CG (Katheryn Winnick) going under cover to investigate the triads, completely unaware of the fantastical stuff at the center of an upcoming gang war, starts off a little cliche but settles in as our charismatic surrogate into this wild world.
But when the series gets to its main events “Wu Assassins” is a true treat for any action fan, especially if you adore what Uwais and his filmmakers have achieved in movies like “The Night Comes for Us,” and the two "Raid" movies. With one meticulously choreographed and jaw-dropping brawl after the next, “Wu Assassins” pronounces a type of crusade against typical Hollywood's choppy, close-up fights, and it recognizes the maximum impact of long takes where you can see the main character’s face throughout a fight, and not just the back of their stunt double’s head. Not for nothing, it’s a big refresher from watching the grit-less fisticuffs in “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw,” and reading that Wall Street Journal article about Jason Statham, Vin Diesel, and Dwayne Johnson getting picky about how many punches they take. In “Wu Assassins,” Uwais proves over and over again that he’s the real deal.
Netflix only offered three episodes for review when it came to “Wu Assassins,” so I can’t speak to whether this pacing keeps up, what the series ultimately even does with its premise, or if the tacky pop music it layers on fight scenes gets any better (it's about the only big flaw of the show). But I suspect I’ll be finishing it as soon as I can, especially given how much I was hooked by the series’ sincere wackiness and refreshing dedication to genuine fight choreography. Like Uwais’ previous projects, it grabs you with its flesh-and-blood energy and ambition, offering a spectacle that has become all too rare in action stories these days, from a star who should be a household name like Jackie Chan before him. Consider “Wu Assassins” a worthy addition to Uwais’ growing resume.
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