Iko Uwais is a human special effect. The balletic fluidity of his on screen movement is apparently only matched by the ferocity of his martial arts strikes. In The Raid, Uwais showcased the sort of visceral physicality matched only by a scant few in action film history. That film’s long takes allowed him to show off his legitimate athleticism and immense charisma. That he’s only 5’6” and lean only heightens the appeal – this little dude moves like this and hits like that? And so a star was born, at least in the world of martial arts cinema.
It was only natural that Hollywood would come knocking on the door of the Indonesian born thespian and, sure enough, the studio pictures fast arrived. Some stories, like the small budget alien invasion lunacy of Beyond Skyline and the blood soaked combat of The Night Comes for Us, understood that putting the camera on Uwais and letting him loose would always pay dividends. Others, like Mile 22, undercut the actor by trapping him in hyper edited action sequences that neuter a special action performer into just another guy in a fight scene.
Eventually, Netflix built a show around Uwais called Wu Assassins. I watched the show when it first aired in 2019 and, like many, I found it an amusing diversion. It had an awful lot of supernatural machinations in between scenes of Uwais and others throwing together some genuinely wonderful television scale action choreography. Somewhat unexpectedly Fistful of Vengeance arrives nearly 3 years after Wu Assassins to tell a standalone sequel to that show’s first season. It seems clear that it was designed to be easily picked up by viewers unfamiliar with the underlying show. The character dynamics are quickly set out with a few brief expository dumps and we’re dropped running into an action packed revenge story.
It perhaps most reminds me of the transition from TV’s Firefly to the theatrical Serenity in approachability. There are certainly payoffs for fans of the original series, but the story remains easy enough to pick up on the fly. Here Uwais’ Kai Jin teams up with a few other heroes, most notably martial artist Lewis Tan (Mortal Kombat), to seek vengeance for the murder of one of the characters at the end of the show’s first season.
Fistful of Vengeance has the sort of delightfully goofy title that gives you a very clear idea of what sort of movie you’re about to get. Action, often with a tinge of humor, laced in the sort of self-awareness that kung fu movies benefit from in the modern age. It’s clear there are some budgetary limitations at play here but the ambition of director Roel Reiné (Marvel’s Inhumans, Hard Target 2) belies his direct-to-video roots. There are some impressive, albeit faked, one takes that allow Uwais and Tan to show off their physical skills. The film also has an impressive sense of pacing for this sort of story – the details are just enough to tide the watcher over to the next exchange of fisticuffs. And Reiné is smart enough to save his best action scene for last. I left the film amused and very open to the possibility of a follow-up sequel.
There’s a pretty clear test for if this film is for you or not. Does the title Fistful of Vengeance spark joy in you? It’s the sort of amusing designation that tells me exactly the sort of story I’m about to receive. Throw Iko Uwais into the mix, and there’s plenty of low budget joy to be had. A best picture contender, this is not. It is, however, a grand goofy actioner that should appeal to anyone that grew up occasionally buying random Kung Fu DVDs at those strange long defunct mall kiosks.
Fistful of Vengeance is on Netflix worldwide on February 17, 2022. For more information please visit https://www.netflix.com/FistfulOfVengeance.