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Fistful of Vengeance review: Big, brutal, and beautiful

Crafting a great action sequence is tough. Making it memorable is even tougher. Accomplishing both feats helped turn the Netflix series Wu Assassins into one of the streaming service’s hidden gems, offering audiences a blend of expertly choreographed action and supernatural thrills across its first 10-episode season.

The film Fistful of Vengeance continues the story of Wu Assassins, reuniting many of the series’ cast members for a new adventure that picks up where the show left off. Along with raising the already high bar for its complicated set pieces, the film adds plenty of feature-quality production design and cinematography to make Fistful of Vengeance a worthy successor to Wu Assassins that will reward both fans of the franchise and newcomers to its martial arts saga. (Warning: Some spoilers about the series ahead.)

The heroes of Fistful of Vengeance circle up while surrounded by attackers.

Who’s back

Set shortly after the events of Wu Assassins, Fistful of Vengeance brings back Iko Uwais (best known for his starring role in The Raid franchise) as Kai Jin, a chef who becomes a reluctant hero after he’s imbued with the mystical powers of 1,000 monks. After using his powers to defeat the element-wielding Wu Lords in the series, Kai finds himself thrown back into action in Fistful of Vengeance when one of his closest friends is murdered. He travels to Thailand along with two of his childhood buddies on the trail of yet another powerful superhuman villain.

Joining Uwais among the film’s returning Wu Assassins cast members are Lewis Tan (Mortal Kombat) and Lawrence Kao (The Walking Dead), who portray Kai’s childhood friends Lu Xin Lee and Tommy Wah, respectively. Fistful of Vengeance also brings back one of the series’ most popular villains, Chinese Triad enforcer Zan Hui, portrayed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny actress JuJu Chan. Behind the camera, filmmaker Roel Reiné (who directed several episodes of the series) helms Fistful of Vengeance from a script penned by Cameron Litvack, Jessica Chou, and Yalun Tu, who each wrote various episodes of Wu Assassins.

Fistful of Vengeance (2022)
Fistful of Vengeance
Genre Action, Crime, Fantasy
Stars Iko Uwais, Lewis Tan, Jason Tobin
Directed by Roel Reiné

The faces both behind the camera and in front of it aren’t the only elements that will feel familiar to Wu Assassins fans, as the film features a similar collection of long, intense, and wonderfully choreographed action sequences that — like Wu Assassins — each manage to feel distinct in one way or another. One particular set piece has Kai and his allies battling a seemingly never-ending horde of henchmen in a street market, using the various stalls and utensils available to them as they pinball from one confrontation to the next, switching partners like a murderous dance team with a multitude of cleavers at their disposal.

And that’s just one of many intricate, mesmerizing, and gloriously gory brawls that help Fistful of Vengeance live up to its title.

Iko Uwais stands shirtless in a temple in a scene from Fistful of Vengeance.

Old problems, new problems

In capturing much of what made Wu Assassins so entertaining, however, Fistful of Vengeance also brings over many of the series’ flaws.

Like the series, the story that propels Kai and his allies from one encounter to the next in Fistful of Vengeance tends to collapse under the weight of its own overly complicated mythology. The various gods, demigods, elemental avatars, and superpowered beings at play in the universe —  as well as their respective histories and relationships over the millennia — all factor into the reasons behind Kai’s saga, but rarely does any of it feel coherent or even important. The action in Fistful of Vengeance never slows down long enough to contemplate the lore anyways, and you’re never left feeling as if you’re missing something required to enjoy what’s unfolding on the screen.

The new supporting characters introduced in Fistful of Vengeance also fall a bit short of Uwais’ surrounding cast in Wu Assassins. All four of the aforementioned returning characters get plenty of time to shine and evolve in the film — particularly Kao’s Tommy, who goes from playing the victim in Wu Assassins to a capable hero in Fistful of Vengeance — but all of the allies and villains debuting in the film feel either disposable or forgettable in the end. The film hints that there are stories yet to tell with many of the new additions to the cast, but it doesn’t leave you wanting them.

Characters from Fistful of Vengeance walk down the street as a car explodes behind them.

Going big

To its credit, Fistful of Vengeance manages to be more than just a movie-length episode of Wu Assassins, though, and expands to fit its big-screen aesthetic in plenty of exciting ways.

While the series put the close-quarters, claustrophobic potential of Chinatown’s narrow alleys and storefronts to frequent use, Fistful of Vengeance finds creative ways to highlight the beauty of Thailand, whether the characters are traveling down a river to a quiet, floating village or infiltrating a tower of glass and steel in the heart of Bangkok. Their battles in the former artfully channel the vibe of classic martial arts adventures filled with bamboo, mysticism, and acrobatics, while the action sequences unfolding in the latter feel like they could have been lifted from an installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise, with their speeding cars, bullets, and physics-defying stunt work.

That the film is able to effortlessly shift from one environment to the next is a testament to the talents of its cast and their chemistry, and how entertaining they are to watch in any setting.

Characters from Fistful of Vengeance explore a hidden temple in Thailand.

Hitting the mark

Fistful of Vengeance does an admirable job of establishing itself as a stand-alone work, and anyone unfamiliar with Wu Assassins but intrigued by its premise, the stars involved, or simply looking for an entertaining action adventure will likely find a lot to enjoy in the film. Uwais, Tan, and Chan in particular all have well-established careers in martial arts cinema and the film puts their skills and experience to good use time and time again.

Fans of Wu Assassins, however, will get significantly more out of Fistful of Vengeance, which leans into the chemistry of its lead actors and builds on the relationship between Kai, Lu Xin, and Tommy that was so important to the success of the series. Both Tan and Kao get quite a bit more of the spotlight in Fistful of Vengeance than they did in Wu Assassins, and they both make the best of the additional screen time they’re given.

Despite its status as a sequel of sorts to Wu Assassins, Fistful of Vengeance stands on its own as a rewarding, exciting action film that highlights the tremendous talents of its cast and delivers plenty of memorable, masterfully shot set pieces.

The Netflix film Fistful of Vengeance premieres February 17 on the streaming service.

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