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Fistful of Vengeance gives Netflix’s Wu Assassins a messy, gritty wrap-up

The feature film pulls together the final threads from Iko Uwais’ supernatural martial-arts series

Iko Uwais, shirtless and serious in front of a row of candles, as Kai in Fistful of Vengeance Photo: Patrick Brown/Netflix

In 2019, the Netflix series Wu Assassins wrapped after only one season, with an ending that was more like sequel-bait than like a real cliffhanger. Although some threads remained open, the show’s main story, pitting San Francisco chef Kai (Iko Uwais) and his friends against the elemental Wu Lords, reached an end. Wu Assassins is a flawed series, suffering from inconsistent writing and occasional odd character behavior, and it struggles to make its derivative fantasy world interesting. But it does benefit from the charm of a strong cast led by Uwais, Lewis Tan, and Byron Mann. Netflix has finally followed up with the series’ feature-length conclusion, Fistful of Vengeance, which fully delivers on the series’ promise — at least in terms of quantity, if not quality.

In Wu Assassins, Kai is chosen by an ancient force called the Dao to become the Wu Assassin, a fighter endowed with supernatural powers and tasked with stopping the Wu Lords of Fire, Wood, Earth, Metal, and Water. The action is bountiful and generally solid, with one caveat: Whenever the show leans too strongly on its supernatural elements, it loses the kinetic energy of Uwais’ fighting style, diluting it with intangible and unengaging CGI superpowers. The show is at its best when it lets the performers show off their skills, and its various directors — including The Dead Lands’ Toa Fraser, Tai Chi Hero’s Stephen Fung, and DTV actioners regular Roel Reiné — generally seemed to understand that.

Reiné returns to helm Fistful of Vengeance, and he seems to have noticed the problem — the fantasy elements and special effects are less prominent this time around. As director, cinematographer, and camera/drone operator, Reiné fully commits to the role of making a film that works both as a series conclusion, and as a stand-alone film suitable for people who don’t know the series. Say goodbye to San Francisco’s Chinatown: The film opens in Bangkok, Thailand, where Kai, former stolen-car dealer Lu Xin (Tan), and former triad member Tommy (Lawrence Kao) are on a new quest for revenge.

Lewis Tan, in loose purple pants and shirts, kicks a flying weirdly pajamaed man in Fistful of Vengeance Photo: Patrick Brown/Netflix

Almost immediately, they have to fight “Chi vampires” called Jiangshi — seemingly a modern take on the famous hopping vampires of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema. Soon, they learn that their quest is intricately linked to the plans of Ku An Qi (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, of Only God Forgives), a supernatural being trying to resurrect Pan Gu, the first man, and reshape the world in her own image.

This basic premise — supernatural evil wants to activate supernatural power — is predictable and short on originality, but its simplicity gives the film a particularly swift pace that makes it an easy watch. The group, soon joined by new characters Preeya and Zama, goes from one location to the next as the heroes try to stop Ku. The film also marks the return of Zan (JuJu Chan), who fans of the show will remember as a fierce, impressive fighter. Once the story is set up, three major action setpieces make up most of the remaining runtime, a sign of the film’s lean, mean efficiency.

The first of those three fights unfolds in a hotel and its adjoining parking garage, where the protagonists are separated into smaller groups. It’s a perfect way to create contained, intense action, though the jumpy cuts back and forth between locations makes it hard to settle into the moment. It’s hard not to think of The Raid or The Night Comes For Us when Uwais fends off two attackers in a narrow staircase, with bloody, messy results. But the brutality of the action never feels as palpable or relatable as it did in earlier Uwais films. The loud, distracting songs that never fit the movie’s tone are a recurring problem, when discreet ambient music or even no music at all would support the action much better.

Of the original series’ characters, Tommy stands out the most in his evolution, going from a helpless loser to a driven, angry man on a mission. Kao acquits himself extremely capably, becoming a convincing leading presence. While Tan and Uwais remain as magnetic as ever, they aren’t given much to do beyond the role of interchangeable kick-ass action stars. It’s a shame, knowing both actors’ capacity to breathe life into the most pedestrian scripts, as long as they’re given enough space to make the characters their own. Fans should note that some regulars from the series are nowhere to be seen, like Katheryn Winnick, whose character is never mentioned.

Lewis Tan, in all black with a black-and-gold jacket, totally kicks some dude right in the stomach in an open-air market in Fistful of Vengeance Photo: Patrick Brown/Netflix

And real character moments are rare in Fistful of Vengeance. Action movies often have to flesh out characters through the fight sequences, but Reiné is too focused on show-stopping spectacle to take that route. At least Preeya has enough backstory to give her a few emotional moments. The other new female ally of the group, Interpol agent Zama, has a past with Lu Xin, and their love story is rekindled. While it’s barely sketched out and way too convenient, it’s still a welcome addition to the story — it allows for a bit of breathing space in a frenetic script, and Tan and Pearl Thusi use their combined charm to help sell it to the audience for the few fleeting moments when it matters.

By the final fight, the problems plaguing the script have become a major limitation. The writers abandon some major threads, bring some characters into scenes where they aren’t needed, and build up others in ways that never pay off. Much as in the series version, the heroes sometimes treat even the most basic questions about their situation as an afterthought, which makes it hard to understand or relate to the decisions they make.

Reiné undeniably wants to give the audience the most generously action-packed film possible, with diverse setups and stunts by Uwais’ team and by Kawee Sirikanaerut, an industry vet who played a major role in some of the most memorable action scenes of the last 20 years, in films such as Ong-Bak, Born to Fight, The Protector, Rambo 4, Extraction, and 2021’s Kate. But while the stunts are suitably ambitious, Reiné’s direction often fails them. He has some worthy ideas about how to support action, including using an aerial shot to pan back and forth between two groups of fighters, to give viewers a clear idea of every group’s position in relation to the others in the sprawling building. But when Uwais tries his hand at a traditional one-vs.-many brawl, Reiné can’t escape the familiar problem of extras visibly waiting for their turn to attack and be defeated. Clever choreography or camera placement can help a movie dodge this problem, but Reiné just serves up a static medium-wide shot that captures every flaw.

Rhatha Phongam as Ku An Qi gestures dramatically in a glass-walled dojo in Fistful of Vengeance Photo: Netflix

Reiné has made undeniable progress since the relative dullness of his late-’90s/early-2000s efforts, like The Delivery and Adrenaline. His work on the DTV action market with The Marine 2 and Hard Target 2 has been commendable. And he clearly tried to step up his game with Fistful of Vengeance. His ideas and ambition culminate with a one-take fight between Kai and multiple opponents, with the camera sweeping between characters. According to Lewis Tan, the scene was shot using a bolt robot camera rig programmed with an algorithm to move around by itself, so the performers have to adapt their choreography to its movements.

The camera movements inevitably become mechanical, and the fight looks like it’s riddled with digital transitions. But the rig gives the scene a very particular aesthetic, defined by fits and starts. The fight is mostly grounded in solid martial choreography, but the style puts the scene on the edge of the supernatural, making it difficult to figure out how to follow the action.

An astounding amount of work and imagination clearly went into this scene, and into the film in general. Renié and his team set out to make Fistful of Vengeance an unusually grounded, raw and dirty action film, the kind of movie where combatants are more likely to hack at each other with machetes than duel with swords. But the camera-rig experiment leaves no space for improvisation, adaptation, or human mistakes, and it makes the fight feel too rehearsed and lacking in urgency. In the hands of a more talented filmmaker, this movie had the potential to become a new martial-arts classic. In Reiné’s, it’s the kind of thing that plays well as an evening’s diversion on Netflix, but doesn’t ever rise above the level of “just another good mid-tier actioner.”

Fistful of Vengeance is now streaming on Netflix.

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