FISTFUL OF VENGEANCE is a new Netflix movie that’s a sequel to the show Wu Assassins. I think I watched two episodes of the show. It stars and is produced and choreographed by the great Iko Uwais, so it had good fights, and it was cool seeing him have a good lead role even speaking English. I also liked the idea of this kind of fantasy in a modern urban world of Triads and stuff. But I spend so much time reviewing movies I have a hard time watching whole shows, and the complicated mythology kinda lost me. Still, I decided to give the movie a shot, and thankfully the references to events from the show are not confusing. It works as a stand alone.
Uwais plays Kai, who on the show was a chef who found out he was a supernatural chosen one called a Wu Assassin who has to kill some magic warlords or whatever. I remember that he would turn into Mark Dacascos sometimes at the beginning of the show, but that doesn’t happen here. He works with a non-supernatural badass named Lu Xin (Lewis Tan, TRUE VENGEANCE, DEADPOOL 2, Into the Badlands, MORTAL KOMBAT) and a smartass former Triad guy named Tommy (Lawrence Kao, MAX STEEL, HONEY: RISE UP AND DANCE) to, I guess fight supernatural threats or something. In the opening scene Kai and Lu Xin are strutting into a cool dance club while Tommy is on a rooftop having champagne with a woman and boasting about himself and his friends, providing us the exposition that they’re trying to find out who killed his sister Jenny.
This opening is a good example of the movie’s flashy style. Colorful locations, show-offy motion controlled camera moves, well done martial arts with bonus CG super powers, a good international mix tape of a soundtrack (with Eminem and Run the Jewels among the representatives for the United States). Kai and Lu Xin spot some dude sucking people’s souls out on the dance floor, it turns into a big fight, when they kill the main guy he explodes into glitter that everyone seems to enjoy as they continue dancing and a cool female DJ keeps mixing and playing a see-through electric violin. Seems like a pretty cool club! And all this is intercut with Tommy being seduced on a party bus but revealing it’s all a trap to try to get info from a monster lady. As one does. Before we have a chance to catch our breath, everyone else on the dance floor freezes like Bullet Time and someone (not Professor Xavier, someone else) starts speaking to “the Wu Assassin” through different people.
Turns out he’s being summoned by William Pan (Jason Tobin, BETTER LUCK TOMORROW, TOKYO DRIFT, F9), a famous CEO guy who reveals he’s the demigod embodiment of order and needs our boys to attack his chaos-embodying twin sister Ku An Qi (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, ONLY GOD FORGIVES, THE PROTECTOR 2, MECHANIC: RESURRECTION) at a high security hotel.
So you kinda get the idea of how much convoluted supernatural mythology this thing is constantly throwing at you. I dig that because it’s so wild but it’s all grounded with a humanity. Our lead trio have a really enjoyable camaraderie as friends who have been through the shit together and feel obligated to continue going through the shit with a shrug and a half smile even though they know it’s gonna hurt.
And there’s sort of a WIZARD OF OZ thing here where their group grows along the yellow brick road. Tommy calls the only person he knows in Bangkok who might be able to get them weapons, Preeya (Francesca Corney – no other credits, but I hope this gets her other roles). She’s kind of a smartass and messes with them in funny ways but when she hears that Jenny died she decides to go with them to attack the hotel. And then when they’re inside they run into Lu Xin’s ex, Adaku (Pearl Thusi, TREMORS 5: BLOODLINES, THE SCORPION KING: BOOK OF SOULS). She’s an Interpol agent who doesn’t know about all this magical shit and is about to arrest Kai when all the people in the hotel, being mind-controlled by Ku An Qi, come after them like zombies. So fuck it, she joins the team too.
(By the way, as a fan of international action co-productions I always like when Interpol pops up. I think of them as a fictional agency that makes them all one big International Action Co-Production Cinematic Universe.)
It’s ironic that Netflix themselves sort of flattened the world of action movies by buying the modern action masterpiece THE NIGHT COMES FOR US and refusing to release it theatrically or on physical media, so that when they make a TV show spinoff some people might think it should be held to the same standards. They’re both “Netflix Originals” co-starring Iko, so why not? This is obviously not as good as that, but it’s pretty damn good if you just look at it as a Roel Reine movie. I first knew him from Seagal’s PISTOL WHIPPED, but now I think of him for his solid DTV part 2s: THE MARINE 2, DEATH RACE 2, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS 2 and HARD TARGET 2. He got good at stretching budgets and schedules by shooting in Thailand, but this movie seems enormous compared to those. This actually seems fair after Netflix swallowed up the straight-to-Blockbuster market, that they should have to give all the DTV greats bigger budgets to work with. They gave John Hyams Black Summer and now they better call up Isaac Florentine.
Anyway, this Reine (who is also the cinematographer) really shines on this larger stage. Good for him.
After the opening fight there’s a plot heavy stretch that made me think maybe it would be light on action. And I was involved enough to be okay with that. But pretty soon Reine lets ‘er rip. Lots of gangs of machete wielding henchmen commencing violent brawls in a variety of interesting Thai locations. Heavy duty shootouts. Explosions. A boat chase. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY, SAVAGE DOG and JIU JITSU star JuJu Chan Szeto (as she’s credited here) shows up as a character named Zu, trying to kill Kai to get his power. I don’t think I got to her on the show, but brief dialogue implies maybe they weren’t always enemies, and that’s enough for me. They get two one-on-one duels.
The choreography is pretty varied and imaginative. Like a guy stomps a floor board causing two huge nails to pop out, and he kicks them while they’re in mid-air and they fly and nail Lu Xin’s hand into a tree. But a bit later Lu Xin pulls them out, stabs them into the guy’s forehead and hammers them in with his palm. That’s the kind of stuff I want to see. That’s cinema.
As they get towards the finale there’s more and more magic involved, but it never just turns into a cut scene of FX, it’s always martial arts and stunts enhanced by the FX. And I liked some of the concepts, like the island where Preeya grew up is protected by an arch covered in beads and scrolls that some beings can’t pass through – basically a magical metal detector. And I liked Lu Xin’s rivalry with some cool guy in a spiky leather jacket who has runes that glow from beneath the skin on his hands. Fuck that guy. You can take him, Lu Xin.
There has been some discussion lately that some weirdos think sex scenes shouldn’t be in movies unless they serve the plot. Others have complained that movies in general (whether due to a new prudishness, caving to international markets or actresses not wanting to do nude scenes) have become oddly sexless. So I wanted to note that this one does have a sex scene – in fact, it seems like it’s gonna be two different sex scenes intercut much like the fight scenes are, except unfortunately one of the trysts is interrupted by a text from a demigod offering to resurrect dead relatives in exchange for capturing Kai’s chi in a magic necklace. You know how it is.
I like when there are stories like this – I think this also applies to Star Wars movies – where the wild coincidences required by the plot fit right into its world view. For example, they go to the one person they know in Bangkok who could get them weapons, having no idea that she has an uncle who’s a shaman who can explain to them what’s going on and give his life to help them save the world. In a normal story it would be silly, but this is a story that believes in magic and destiny. So of course that would happen. It would be wrong if it didn’t.
I enjoyed this one, and the appeal is pretty simple: tons of action, tons of imaginative gimmicks, joyfully excessive flashiness, all grounded by these very charismatic people playing this group of friends we can get behind. These guys have all kinds of talent and specialty knowledge but there’s always a ton more they don’t know, leaving them a little behind. They have huge responsibilities that seem just out of their control. The one thing they know is that they have each other. Sometimes they try to go on their own, but it always turns out they have to do it together. Sometimes they fight – usually bickering, occasionally one of them being possessed by Pan Gu, the First Man and making them literally fight – but they always make up and call each other “bro.” There is loyalty and forgiveness. I realized it was similar to what I like about the FAST AND FURIOUS movies even before it ended with them on a beach having a toast “to family, new and old.”
I guess I would qualify as new to the family. Thanks for making me feel welcome, FISTFUL OF VENGEANCE.