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Currently streaming its first season on Netflix, Wu Assassins has plenty going for it. The fight scenes are good, the twists come fast and loose, and the actors are fully committed. In the midst of all of this, though, there was one aspect above all that had us glued to the screen, and it was Uncle Six, the morally dubious stepfather of the lead character, Kai Jin. Every time Uncle Six actor Byron Mann entered a scene playing this part, the show moved from being simply good to transfixing.
This is not to say that the other performances aren’t good, because they are. We’ve already stated that the actors are committed, and what could end up as a very silly show ends up being slightly less silly as a result. But being borderline silly doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining, and furthermore, as the good Time Lord once said, what’s wrong with silly? As long as the stakes are in place, silly is fine.
Wu Assassins' first episode mostly leans this way. It finds the chef Kai Jin (Iko Uwais) dealing with angry mobsters, who go looking to pound him following an altercation that took place over what was either a peanut allergy or a severe dislike of peanuts (unclear). Soon enough he’s racing away in his food truck, though the escape is short-lived, as he runs a woman over. He gets out to check and see if she’s okay, and she is. She then jams an amber amulet into his chest, takes him to a magical training ground in his mind, and gives him an expositional info-dump that would make J.R.R. Tolkien's head go dancing.
Kai learns that there is such a thing as elementally based "Wu Warlocks," and that he is the next in a line of chosen one super-monk Wu Assassins. It is their job to, as you may have guessed, kill off the Wu Warlocks, and prevent their powers from being used for ill purposes.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Wu Assassins below**
One of the issues involved is that we soon find out that Jin’s stepfather, Uncle Six, is himself a Wu Warlord, and his powers are based in fire. He’s also a powerful mobster who has a penchant for killing subordinates who fail him. Neither Jin nor Uncle Six are aware they are magical, mystical enemies at the start ... but they find out soon enough.
If you'll pardon us, it is highly fitting that Uncle Six has the power of fire, because Byron Mann’s acting has that same power. That is utterly trite, but it's still true.
His character may be cold and ruthless on the exterior, but this guy has a fire burning inside ... a magical fire. His kindness to his stepson shows this, but the same kindness is not extended to anyone else. Early on in the season, he reads some wisdom to Kai, saying that a master should treat his workers as he would treat his own son. He must not be paying attention to what he's saying or reading, because we've seen him kill many of his "workers" before this, and before he learns the truth of their irreconcilable cosmic difference, he's nothing but warm to Kai.
Many of the actors in this series have been seen before in genre, and they are given the chance to do some interesting new things here: We knew that Uwais could beat the tarnish out of a room full of guys thanks to The Raid and its sequel, but we didn't know that he could be funny; Katheryn Winnick (playing an undercover cop) gets to show some moves that we definitely didn't see on Vikings; and Summer Glau pops in eventually, too — we're always happy to see her.
It is Mann, however, who finally gets the showcase that he so richly deserves. He's proved his value time and time again — in The Man With the Iron Fists, several episodes of The Expanse, playing the original Kovacs in the highly underrated Altered Carbon, and more — but here he gets full scenes in which he can stretch out, relax, and really wallow in some fiery pathos. He may come close to nibbling a little scenery, but that perfectly suits this show.
In one of his early scenes, Uncle Six is depicted in full-on gangster mode, once again coldly gunning down a pair of men who have failed him. He actually lets one of them go, making the guy think that he is going to live — Six then puts a spin on a classic Ramsay Bolton move and shoots the guy in the back. Psyche!
He is chilling in these scenes, and that’s before we find out he has magical powers. Aside from constant murder, what makes him so chilling, exactly? He plays nice. For the most part, when talking to people that he's about to murder, he is charming, likable, and most of all ... polite.
It is his politeness that scares you, because he could be smiling and offering you a tray of cookies one moment and then gunning you down the next.
He adds a necessary urgency to the series, as he makes you think that he is capable of anything, at any time. When he's on screen, you are on your toes. Whenever your attention may begin to wander away, Uncle Six will pop in and, in a snap, you're glued to the screen in horror — but also fascination.
We soon find out that there is much more to the character than just playing with his employees. Not only does he turn out to be a Wu Warlord, but as we've said, he's Jin's stepfather. This Vader-come-Wu raised Kai, but he didn’t do it through fear, as we might expect; in flashbacks, we see that he raised him with love and kindness. These are qualities that he doesn't really show to anyone else.
It is in this relationship with Kai that we see the softer side of Six. We see how he protected Jin when he was young, and when Kai is grown, his offer to buy Kai a restaurant space (something that we think could be an evil scheme of some kind) is really just an example of Uncle Six trying to do something nice. These moments when we realize that Six, deep down, might not be completely evil hit even harder, because once again Mann catches you off guard. He has an agenda, but in his own mind he's no villain. All of the most successful antagonists think that way.
We won’t spoil the story in terms of where he ends up — we’ll just say that his relationship with Kai is what humanizes this polite killer and that there may be some redemption in store. Uncle Six has done very bad things, but does that mean that he is all bad, full stop? We’re not sure. When it eventually comes down to father and son having to magically slug it out (because of course it does), Six says that he will do what is necessary, even if it means killing his son. He speaks with conviction, but his actions don't match. What exactly is his deal? The true answers lie somewhere within Mann’s twinkling eyes, which had us enthralled.
The series as a whole is a pulpy mash-up that goes from a light comedy, to a bloodbath, to a magical mystery tour, to a serious attempt at a mob violence story ... and all of this proceeds at ludicrous speed. The pace and switches of tone are faster than Barry Allen on bathtub crank, but when Mann enters the scene (feeling at times like Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, except not a Nazi) the show has a real basis in fear, but also in soul. This man has made many mistakes, but there are multiple shades of gray in play.
You may not forgive him, and you probably won’t even fully like him. The only thing that we can say for certain is that you won’t be able to take your eyes off of him. We certainly couldn't.
Wu Assassins Season 1 is streaming on Netflix right now.