Wu Assassins season 1 has officially dropped on Netflix! Does it live up to the hype? Read our review to find out!
This review contains minor spoilers.
Wu Assassins has been on my radar ever since the final season of Into the Badlands. Not only does it feature some of the same people in front of and behind the camera (including the incredible Lewis Tan), it also dances around some of the same elements that made so many people fall in love with the Daniel Wu-led series.
But don’t expect Wu Assassins to be a carbon copy of Into the Badlands. Instead, it leans more heavily into the mystical elements of protagonist Kai Jin’s world, which is completely upended when he is chosen as the Wu assassin, a warrior who is meant to defeat ancient elemental powers hellbent on taking over the world.
If you’re looking for looking for shows like Into the Badlands, Wu Assassins is a good place to start, but it’s fully capable of standing on its own.
‘Wu Assassins’ review
We meet Kai in the same way we meet most everyman characters — living a fairly ordinary life, going about his daily business, and dreaming of something more. His story takes a quick left turn, however, when the mysterious Ling-Ling shows up and gives him (somewhat forcefully) the mantle of the Wu assassin.
Kai quickly finds himself in a lot of trouble with Chinatown’s Triad, but his powers allow him to hide in plain sight as he uses previous Wu assassin faces to disguise himself. In a matter of only a few hours, his life has become infinitely more complicated (thanks to his pure heart), but infinitely more interesting.
Iko Uwais, who will be better known to non-American audiences, easily takes the lead as Kai in Wu Assassins. It’s clear from the start that this series is leaning heavily into martial arts, not only to keep the action going but to showcase the incredible talents of its cast and crew. I’m certainly not complaining, especially given how the series starts right in the middle of an epic fight.
We find out quickly enough that Kai’s adoptive father Uncle Six (Byron Mann) is not only head of the Triad but also controls the fire Wu. Uncle Six is a refined yet ruthless character who has a Cheshire grin and just enough charm to make you want to trust him even when you know you shouldn’t. His relationship with Kai is complicated from the beginning, and only gets more interesting and nuanced as the series goes on.
Kai’s best friends include Jenny Wah (Li Jun Li), Tommy Wah (Lawrence Kao), and Lu Xin Lee (Lewis Tan). These four are as close as siblings with ties to Uncle Six, who saved them from a horrific fire when they were children.
Jenny and Tommy have a contentious relationship. There is plenty of love between the two, but they couldn’t be more different from each other. Jenny is practiced in the art of saving face. She dresses impeccably and never shows weakness. The success of their family restaurant rests firmly on her shoulders, and she’s been tasked with a mound of responsibilities that threaten to break her completely.
Tommy, meanwhile, tries his hardest to live up to the expectations of his sister and their overbearing, disapproving parents, but he never quite manages to keep his feet under him for long. He’s an addict who also happens to be mixed up with the Triad. He’s by no means a bad person, but he often finds himself in compromising positions that he can’t find his way out of on his own. That’s usually when Jenny steps in.
Everyone on this show is supremely talented in working their way through the intricate fight choreography that a series like this demands, but there’s something about the way Li Jun Li fights that gets me excited. Jenny hits hard, and you can feel it in every blow she lands. She wipes the floor with three guys who dare to challenge her, and you can feel the rage bubbling just underneath the surface. Fighting is the only outlet she has for the stress she must feel on a daily basis, so it’s no wonder she’s so good at it.
Tommy is less of a fighter than his sister, but he’s not against throwing a punch or two. He makes some terrible decisions throughout Wu Assassins season 1 — and pays for most of them — but he somehow, inexplicably, remains likable. He has a good heart and he means no harm. He’s also one of the few characters to add some levity to an otherwise apocalyptic show. It’s easy to get frustrated with the choices he makes, if only because you so desperately want him to be better.
Rounding out this quartet of characters is Lu Xin, who owns a custom garage and steals cars on the side for the Triad. Unlike Kai and Jenny, he has no problem committing crimes in the name of the Triad, but unlike Tommy, he’s actually good at it. He’s calm and cool on the surface, ever the suave and practical one. He loves his life, but there’s a lot more hidden under the surface. His story comes more slowly than the others, and it’s much more complex and layered as a result.
C.G. (Katheryn Winnick) and Zan (JuJu Chan) round out the other series-long main players in Wu Assassins. C.G., better known as Christine Gavin, is an undercover cop who’s trying to stop a race war from breaking out in Chinatown between the Triad and some Russian mobsters. She gets a job in Lu Xin’s garage, where she plans to prove herself and get herself in deeper with the Triad.
Christine is an interesting character because she doesn’t quite fit in the world she’s built herself. As a white woman, she feels like an outsider both among her colleagues at the precinct and at Lu Xin’s garage. Thankfully, this just pushes her to work harder and be smarter than everyone else around her, and she has no problem holding her own. She’s more of a brawler than the other women on the show, which makes her stand out of the crowd. And she can certainly take a punch.
Zan, on the other hand, walks around like she has nothing to prove. It’s several episodes before we see her throw a single punch, and yet you immediately recognize that she’s probably the most dangerous person in the room at any given time. She’s stoic and reserved, more loyal to Uncle Six and the Triad than anyone else, and has the kind of confidence that oozes from every pore in her body.
I loved her before I ever saw her fight, and that feeling only intensified once she finally got in on the action. If Kai is quick and Jenny is brutal and C.G. is scrappy, then Zan can only be described as precise. Her fight against Jenny in the restaurant’s kitchen was a dance where Zan led every step. The way she moved her body and used her legs to incapacitate her opponent was equally beautiful and deadly, much like the character herself.
So far, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the characters, but not much time analyzing the plot. Unfortunately, this is one of the weakest aspects of the show. The history and mythology of the Wu assassins is fascinating; it is storied and rich in detail. The worldbuilding felt organic and natural even when long bouts of exposition were necessary to move the story along.
Unfortunately, the pacing kept throwing me off. The story skips around from episode to episode and even within the same episode (this works best in episode 8, which is by far my favorite). There are a lot of characters at play here between the humans, the warlords, and the assassins, and there are plenty of stories to tell for each of them. Over the course of 10 episodes, we learn how Kai and his friends know each other, how the Wu assassins have struggled with their collective mission, and how the various warlords have kept a hold over their powers.
It’s a lot to take in, and not every story is told linearly. Sometimes the beginning of an episode can be jarring, and I’ll find myself wondering if I somehow skipped ahead, only to be thrown back into the proper narrative after the cold open has concluded. There’s nothing wrong with constructing a story like this (The Haunting of Hill House, for example, bounced between three simultaneous narratives without losing me), but you have to make sure the execution is perfect. Unfortunately, I think Wu Assassins fell a little short and often felt choppy where it wasn’t meant to be.
Timeline aside, we’re introduced to the series’ main villain after a few episodes. Alec McCullough is a warlord who controls wood and is looking to be reunited with his family. He’s more one-dimensional than Uncle Six, but he poses a serious threat and proves to be a cunning and resourceful antagonist to our hero.
In fact, it’s easy to sympathize with McCullough, even though it’s obvious he’s willing to do anything to accomplish his goals. He was given a power he did not ask for and lost his family in the process. Time, grief, and magic have warped his mind, but it’s hard to blame him for just wanting to go back to his old life. I found myself conflicted in the final episode, and that was certainly not a feeling I was anticipating.
The other warlords, and particularly Summer Glau’s introduction, are interesting, to say the least. They each control a different element, have distinct personalities and quirks, and seek different objectives. I wish more time had been spent getting to know each one of them before Kai ultimately took them down.
The show found a way to tie a little bow on top of the Wu Assassins season 1 story arc. So much so, in fact, that I would not be upset if we didn’t get a season 2. The story feels complete, minus the last 30 seconds or so of the finale, and everyone left standing finds themselves in a better place than when the series first started.
All in all, Wu Assassins is full of potential. It shines when it comes to character development and fight choreography. It uplifts Asian Americans and works to highlight their food and culture. (Seriously, don’t watch this show on an empty stomach! The cooking scenes were as well-choreographed and beautiful as the fights.) This is the type of show we need on our televisions right now, and I hope it finds the audience that Into the Badlands never quite seemed to pin down.
Where the show falters is mainly in the cohesiveness of the plot. It seemed to move too fast and jump around too often. I wanted to luxuriate in every detail. I could’ve spent several seasons building up each warlord and Kai’s journey to defeat them. Instead, we were forced to meet one right after another before ever getting a chance to dive too deeply into their stories. It’s a shame because there’s clearly so much to explore here.
Unfortunately, I also have to mention the CGI, which could have been better. I try not to fault genre shows for their special effects because I know how expensive this technology can be, but when it looks like you used a Snapchat face-swap filter on your main character, there’s bound to be some complaints.
It’s hard to know where Wu Assassins goes from here. I’ve seen favorable reviews from fans and critics alike, so I do believe there is an audience for a second season. The finale wrapped up most of the story, but by no means shut the door on this series. The final moments prove there’s more to be told, but I can’t begin to guess what it is.
Whichever direction the creators go in next, if there is a Wu Assassins season 2, I hope they think bigger and bolder than season 1. The series can do better than repeating a similar story to its freshman outing, especially considering the worldbuilding has left the door open for something greater than what came before.