I remember browsing Netflix a few years ago in a semi-sleepy state one night looking for something to watch when I stumbled upon an image of Iko Uwais in Wu Assassins. I had no idea the actor, who was absolutely fantastic in both The Raid and The Raid 2, had transitioned to Hollywood productions, let alone a martial arts-focused action series for Netflix. I immediately pressed play without reading further and after finishing the first episode, I wished I did some more research.
The best thing you can say about Wu Assassins is that it gave a paycheck to some very impressive Asian and Asian-American actors. Basically, everyone on the show, from Lewis Tan to Tzi Ma, to Celia Au and Mark Dacascos, have flown under the radar for too long and deserve to make some scratch. Sadly, the show couldn’t care less about being coherent or featuring any kind of interesting fight sequences.
That same mistake couldn’t happen with Fistful of Vengeance, a belated follow-up/finale to the show, right? Netflix wouldn’t dare make a second project with Uwais that includes jump cuts and slowed-down choreography, right? The plot would at least be more organized and fleshed out, right? Well…
Fistful of Vengeance
Director: Roel Reine
Finale Release Date: February 17, 2022 (Netflix)
In the official description on Netflix, Fistful of Vengeance is summarized as such: A revenge mission becomes a fight to save the world from an ancient threat when superpowered assassin Kai tracks a killer to Bangkok. Funny how there is no mention of Wu Assassins, the series that precedes this film and contains the actual character development you would need to care about the plot here. That’s not really saying much, though, because aside from characters name dropping “Wu Assassin” numerous times, this might as well be a standalone project.
You’d think the idea would be that those unfamiliar with the series could then jump right into Fistful of Vengeance, but as someone who finished the series, I was completely lost at the start. Things begin en media res (which seems to be happening much more frequently with streaming shows nowadays) with Kai (Iko Uwais) and Lu Xin (Lewis Tan) infiltrating a nightclub in Bangkok while Tommy (Laurence Kao) narrates the plot of Wu Assassins to an unnamed lady that is all over him. He gives the briefest of summaries here and leaves out a lot of information, but you’re not supposed to be thinking because some sorcerer is sucking the souls out of people in the club and a fight scene has to happen. Props for not wasting time, but it only gets worse from here.
Wu Assassins tried its best to craft some interesting fight sequences that played to the strengths of its actors in the first few episodes. The series kicked off with a rather brutal brawl in a small apartment complex where its lead character beat the ever-living piss out of some unlucky villains. It had the telltale signs of shoddy editing (i.e. quick cuts, shaky cam, lack of impact), but at least gave you an idea of the tone that Netflix was shooting for. Fistful of Vengeance, on the other hand, begins with some of the slowest and most awkward-looking choreography imaginable that also throws in supernatural elements with little explanation or preparation.
To explain why Kai is able to push people across the room would require more effort than this film wants to expend, so I’ll just say that whoever in marketing believed you could skip Wu Assassins and be fine here is mistaken. Anyway, the battle cuts back to Tommy a couple of times as he is getting close to this mysterious lady in a limousine and it turns out she is also part of this cult of sorcerers. Tommy gets the upper hand and assassinates her, ending their trail at the club and accomplishing basically nothing in the first 10 minutes. Solid way to start the film…
As the plot progresses, we learn that Fistful of Vengeance is actually leaning in on the supernatural elements hinted at by Wu Assassins that went completely underutilized. The whole story here revolves around Kai, Lu Xin, and Tommy tracking down the duo of Ku An Qi (Rhatha Phongam) and Pan (Jason Tobin) to prevent them from reshaping the world in their image. The duo was also responsible for the death of Jenny, Tommy’s sister, and a major character from Wu Assassins who was still alive at the end of the first season. Why is she dead here? You need some manufactured drama, that’s why!
Interestingly, before I sat down to watch Fistful of Vengeance, I was ruminating on why actor Tony Jaa’s earlier work resonated so much while some of his later films have flopped. Both Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong have next to no plot or any kind of real character development, so you’d think that sitting through inane dialogue would become tiresome. The thing is, both of those films have electrifying and visceral combat that still holds up nearly 20 years later. All Jaa needed was a simple context for his actions and the films were able to weave fights organically around that.
Fistful of Vengeance is simultaneously too plot-filled for its own good while having next to no plot to hang anything on. The majority of the early scenes in the movie are loaded with exposition that says a lot of words but does nothing to further our understanding of the stakes at hand. It also throws a lot of characters at you with the flimsiest of connections before they quickly join the main team.
I can’t keep complaining about the plot and dialogue, though, or we’ll be here all day. I’ll be forever confused why Netflix decided to throw away Katheryn Winnick from Wu Assassins and replace her with Pearl Thusi here, but I can’t linger on those details. This film doesn’t care and I shouldn’t either. What I won’t forgive is the extremely lackluster fight choreography that wastes Uwais’ talents more than even Triple Threat did.
If you watch the trailer for Fistful of Vengeance, you’d be forgiven for assuming this is a high-octane action thriller with some light comedy and a buddy cop dynamic. Instead, it’s a painfully dire film with basically no chemistry between any of the leads and fight choreography that echoes all of the worst tropes of modern action filmmaking. I can’t believe an action film with one of the greatest martial artists of our generation has to resort to jump-cuts to sell itself, but that’s what we get.
The setup for each sequence isn’t so bad, so the writers at least understood how to set the stakes for different scenes. The problem is just that Uwais is almost holding himself back to not upstage the rest of the cast here. I give props to Lewis Tan for convincingly selling his kicks and punches, but a climactic battle between the two stars is one of the worst fights I’ve seen in an action film in quite some time. It’s so choppy, rhythmically stilted, and all-around weightless that I just don’t know what else to say.
That’s kind of how most of Fistful of Vengeance goes. Most of the actors aren’t trained martial artists, so the editors need to pick up the slack and it creates a sensation of whiplash. Lewis Tan, at one point, does a wire-assisted backflip while his opponent is fumbling on the ground only for the camera to cut to a side shot with both characters standing perfectly still. It’s jarring and possibly the worst example out of the entire production, but that’s about the level of quality you can expect to find on offer.
Sometimes, the setup can’t even save the fights. One bit towards the beginning has Kai and Lu Xin infiltrate an office building and to exit, they have to fight dozens of people at once. I’m not sure why my mind went straight to the prison fight from The Raid 2, but this was definitely not that. It also highlights another strange element with the writing that I couldn’t get out of my head: Kai is supernaturally gifted, but his friends are just regular people. Why are they able to clean house like him? Not only that, but we already know that the opposition is being mind-controlled by the main duo, so why are the heroes murdering them?
It’s one thing to watch clearly evil characters get killed by the hero in films. It’s another when these highly trained combatants that have magic on their side resort to shooting bystanders in the head just because the fight choreography and story aren’t in sync. It just left a really bad taste in my mouth that Fistful of Vengeance couldn’t change.
I don’t want to say this film is a total failure or anything because a few segments do come together. The music selection is painful, but the middle of the film actually slows down a bit to drop some philosophy that almost gets meta with things. Kai and his friends wind up in some kind of Buddhist retreat in the middle of Thailand and everyone takes time to reflect. There’s some ludicrous sex scene here, but ignoring that, Kai’s reason for fighting is put to the test by one of the monks.
As the monk explains, Kai isn’t being honest with himself about this mission. Instead of trying to help his friends get revenge, he’s looking for a reason to escape the troubles they face. It’s interesting to see the film directly call out the bullshit of its lead character, but more importantly, it lets Iko Uwais stretch his acting ability. When given decent material, he can elevate it. Following this moment, the movie actually throws in a couple of decent fights that had me excited for the third act.
We get a brawl between Uwais and two henchmen that recalls some of the final moments of John Wick: Chapter 3 where Keanu Reeves faced off with two fighters from The Raid 2. It’s framed well, given extended takes, and doesn’t go too heavy on the CG. There’s even a funny moment when Kai runs off to help Lu Xin and gets surrounded, calling back to some Bruce Lee brawls with his furious kicks. I genuinely thought that maybe the beginning was rushed, but the back half of the film just flops even harder.
It’s truly a shame the way Fistful of Vengeance turned out. I do believe that the majority of my negativity here is that I thought Netflix would have learned from the mistakes Wu Assassins made to craft something better. I thought we were done with sloppy editing in action films after John Wick showed we didn’t need it. I thought Iko Uwais would have enough creative pull to ensure his fights were top-notch. Instead, this is yet another example of mistaking martial arts for being mystical bullshit and trying to craft a plot around how magical our main hero is.
Iko Uwais doesn’t need magic to kick our asses. He could probably do it in his sleep while recovering from a skiing accident. I get that for other films, the fantasy trappings would explain how fighters are performing larger-than-life movements, but Uwais can simply do them. Why even try to explain it otherwise?
I’m not really sure how else to end this review. For all my ranting and raving, I want to make it perfectly clear that I don’t hate the cast and crew that assembled this. Since films are multi-person projects, any number of things can go wrong on the way to the final stop. For Fistful of Vengeance, I do believe a somewhat decent action movie is hiding under the terrible editing. It’s a shame we’ll never get to see that especially since, once again, this cast deserves better. Maybe next time, Netflix can let Uwais direct.