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.