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How Fistful of Vengeance punched to the top on Netflix

The first season of Wu Assassins is one of Netflix’s hidden gems, combining a compelling, fantasy-fueled story with a cast spanning several generations of martial-arts movie icons. That saga continued in Fistful of Vengeance, a feature-length film that picks up where Wu Assassins left off and brought many of the show’s core cast members back for another adventure filled with brilliantly choreographed, jaw-dropping action sequences.

It didn’t take long for Fistful of Vengeance to hit the top of the Netflix charts, becoming the #1 movie on the streaming service in the U.S. and internationally within the first 48 hours of its February 17 premiere.  Its mainstream success has introduced a wide range of audiences to action veteran Iko Uwais and the rest of the film’s talented cast, including returning Wu Assassins actors Lewis Tan (Mortal Kombat) and Lawrence Kao (The Originals). Uwais, Tan, and Kao play childhood friends Kai Jin, Lu Xin Lee, and Tommy Wah, respectively, who find themselves facing another supernatural threat to the world shortly after the events of the series — this time, located in Thailand.

The film’s cast is a mix of genre veterans and actors new to martial arts cinema, but thanks to the film’s talented cast, choreographers, and stunt teams, you wouldn’t know anyone was a first-timer from watching them fight.

The cast of Fistful of Vengeance walks through a street in Thailand.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Focus on fighting

“We try to connect the action to the story and the skills of the cast,” said Uwais of his approach — and that of the stunt teams working on the film — to choreographing the complicated action sequences that fill Fistful of Vengeance and so many of his other projects.

Whether serving as a consultant or directly involved in the choreography via his own stunt team, Uwais often plays a key role in developing the action in the projects he appears in, dating back to his career-launching performance in Gareth Evans’ 2011 film The Raid. His experience gives him a unique perspective on that particular element of the genre.

“Lewis is a martial artist, so it’s not really difficult for him, but you have to make it special for each character,” said Uwais of the inability to take a “one size fits all” approach to fight choreography and training, given the wide range of experience among cast members in most films. “So the design of the fights were different for Lewis, different for [Wu Assassins actress] Katheryn Winnick, different for Lawrence, and different for me. But we have fun with it.”

Fistful of Vengeance (2022)

Fistful of Vengeance
Genre Action, Crime, Fantasy
Stars Iko Uwais, Lewis Tan, Jason Tobin
Directed by Roel Reiné

“Before we make the film or the series, we sit down and we try to come up with stuff that hasn’t been done before or ways we can shoot things that are going to be really unique,” said Tan, whose recent resume is filled with the sort of projects that have made him a rising star both in the action genre and among general audiences. Along with starring in the recent Mortal Kombat franchise reboot, Tan can be seen in popular series Into the Badlands and Shadow and Bone and had a critically praised, single-episode appearance in Netflix’s Iron Fist series as the drunk assassin Zhou Cheng.

“A lot of action films nowadays, they get to set and say, ‘Okay, let’s see the choreography,’ and then they shoot it and start chopping it all up in the editing room. And that’s it,” he said. “We like to design and plan things really carefully. It takes time. It takes rehearsal. It takes people who can perform some of these types of martial arts. And because we have amazing martial artists like Iko, we can use their ability to do these things. [The camera] can stay on them a lot longer with shots, and we can do one-take scenes. We can use the location and use more of the props, too.”

Juju Chan and Iko Uwais fight in a scene from Fistful of Vengeance.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Better brawls through chemistry

Another actor with a long history of bringing her martial arts talents to the screen, JuJu Chan Szeto (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny) reprises her role as Triad enforcer and fan-favorite Wu Assassins villain Zan in Fistful of Vengeance, pitting her against the series’ trio of returning lead actors. Soon after the three friends travel from San Francisco to Thailand in order to find the person who murdered Tommy’s sister, they find themselves facing off against Zan again miles away from home.

An accomplished martial artist in myriad disciplines whose acting resume is peppered with roles alongside Tony Jaa, Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, and other genre icons, Szeto offered some additional insight on how Fistful of VengeanceWu Assassins, and similar projects endeavor to make each fight scene feel unique in a story packed with action.

“It’s never just you fighting by yourself. You’re fighting with an opponent. So whoever is working with you in the fight scene, you need to have a good chemistry, no matter whether you’re fighting against the other actor or their stunt double,” she said. “We were working with the top Asian stunt teams on [Fistful of Vengeance]. We had a month to prep the moves, so we came up with different ways to make use of the environments.”

Szeto even found herself squaring off against Uwais in a memorable scene that had the pair battling in a narrow hallway, adding a claustrophobic, close-quarters element to an encounter that squeezed plenty of intense choreography into a small space.

“That hallway scene was a great example, and really fun,” she said. “We tried to make use of what’s in the environment. And facing off with Iko? That was incredible. He’s one of my action heroes.”

A camera operator and actor are both suspended from wires while filming a scene from Fistful of Vengeance.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Newbies welcome

Not everyone who throws down in the film has a long history in martial arts cinema, however. Although Kao is one of the series leads in Wu Assassins, his role in the show — playing the troubled younger brother of Li Jun Li’s character, Jenny Wah — often kept him far from the action. That changed in Fistful of Vengeance, which sees Kao’s character evolve into a bonafide action hero alongside Uwais and Tan’s well-established brawlers.

Fortunately, Kao found that his long history as a dancer — most recently with the Kinjaz dance team — prepared him for turning Tommy into a force to be reckoned with in Fistful of Vengeance.

“Dancing is basically choreography and understanding steps and movement, so bringing that into the martial arts in Fistful of Vengeance was easy for me to incorporate — because in the end, it’s a dance between two people, you know?” he said. “The difference is that the stakes are so much higher when you’re fighting because you’re about to die! That just makes it so much more intense.”

“When they call ‘Action!’ [in a fight scene], it’s a different feeling than when they play music and you start dancing,” he said. “As a dancer, the music moves you. But as an actor, the story does. The movement is there, but the story is really what perpetuates what goes on.”

Lawrence Kao in a scene from Fistful of Vengeance.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Still, it was the opportunity to finally join Uwais, Tan, and Szeto in the action that had Kao most excited for Fistful of Vengeance — particularly after spending so much of Wu Assassins playing a character that always seems to need rescuing.

“It was like, ‘Hey, welcome to the club. You can come in now!’ this time,” he said. “I was kicking a heroin addiction [in Wu Assassins], but now I’m kicking ass. As an actor. I’ve never done that before, and to be surrounded by heavyweights like Iko, Lewis, and Juju? Come on, that’s insane.”

The skills that unite

And although it might seem like a set filled with action heroes and martial arts stars could easily become a petri dish for unchecked egos and competitive friction, the Fistful of Vengeance cast was eager to suggest that couldn’t be farther from the truth in the Wu Assassins universe.

“With Fistful of Vengeance, you had these elite-level martial artists and performers who are extremely humble, and [in many cases] want to learn more,” said franchise newcomer Jason Tobin, best known for his current starring role in the martial arts drama Warrior, along with a recurring role in the Fast and Furious franchise. A well-established martial artist on his own, Tobin portrays powerful tech CEO William Pan in the film.

“It’s great, because you always learn from each other,” said Szeto of her experience on both Wu Assassins and Fistful of Vengeance. “Whenever I train with Iko’s team, I ask them to teach me silat [the Southeast Asian martial art]. … Every time I’m on a film set, I love seeing other martial artists because I can learn from them. Some of them have asked me to teach them nunchucks, too, so we exchange our skills and knowledge, and I really love that about it.”

The heroes of Fistful of Vengeance circle up while surrounded by attackers.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

And no matter how long your career or how impressive your skills are, there’s always room to learn more, said Uwais.

“[On Wu Assassins,] we worked with Mark Dacascos (Only The Strong, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum), and he can do anything. He can flip and do gymnastics, and I learned from him, too,” said Uwais, recalling his own interaction with the genre veterans his recent work has teamed him with and the lessons he’s still learning from them. In working with the stunt teams to develop action sequences for Dacascos and other actors, Uwais said he’s often reminded of the benefits of staying open to new techniques and disciplines, both for himself and the actors he works with onset.

“When we create choreography for [martial artists actors] based on what we know about them, based on the movies we know them from, they all say, ‘I want to learn new stuff’ to me,” said Uwais. “So I learn from them when we teach them silat or other things that go along with what they know.”

That martial-arts melting pot is something that Uwais’ character — a chef as talented in the kitchen as he is in a fight — would likely be proud to be a part of.

It’s all of that planning, training, and execution that ultimately makes Fistful of Vengeance — and Wu Assassins, for that matter — feel like projects bigger than their modest budgets, packed with elements that make the action jump off the screen and stick around in your memory longer than it would in typical, higher-profile action fare.

Directed by Roel Reiné, Fistful of Vengeance is available now on Netflix.

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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