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The Hollywood Insider Fistful of Vengeance Review

Photo: ‘Fistful of Vengeance’

As a quick disclaimer, I have never seen even one episode of ‘Wu Assassins’, a Netflix show whose chances of getting a second season are apparently dubious. ‘Fistful of Vengeance’ is supposed to be a spinoff/sequel to ‘Wu Assassins’, but for the sake of this review, I’ll be treating it as a standalone experience. It’s entirely possible that someone scrolling through new releases on Netflix will come across ‘Fistful of Vengeance’ without having heard of the show it’s connected to; with that in mind, I’ll be talking about this film as someone with a moderate amount of experience with martial arts movies.

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Even so, reviewing ‘Fistful of Vengeance’ is both a simple and difficult ordeal; for one, it’s easy to accept the film on its own (admittedly minor) merits. Assuming you haven’t watched Marvel’s ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ (sadly, I do consider myself to be one of those people), then you can certainly do worse than with ‘Fistful of Vengeance’ as a modern sample of East-Asian action Cinema. The movie was shot on-location, in Thailand, with a mostly Asian cast, and with mostly Asian creative minds working behind the scenes. Still, as I’ll explain, I did find myself wanting a good deal more than what I got.

Iko Uwais: Action Star in the Making

The biggest positive in the movie’s favor is that it puts Indonesian actor Iko Uwais right in the center, giving him a rare opportunity to show his talents in a movie made for an English-speaking audience. It’s strange to think of Uwais as an up-and-comer, because that’s simply not true; he had already gained notoriety in the justifiably well-received ‘The Raid’ and its sequel. Sadly, Uwais has not gotten many roles in the realm of Cinema, but there is the possibility that ‘Fistful of Vengeance’ will lead him closer to mainstream recognition.

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Uwais, who plays Kai Jin (the closest the film has to a single protagonist), is easily the highlight; we also get fine supporting players in Lewis Tan and Lawrence Kao, as Lu Xin Lee and Tommy Wah respectively. I wouldn’t recommend getting attached to these characters, since the film’s constant forward momentum and brief runtime (only 96 minutes) prevent us from getting to know any of them as individuals, although they do function better as a squad of sorts; it’s also during these moments of teamwork that we get the film’s few moments of humor, although your mileage may vary as to the success of such jokes.

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Asian Representation Done Right — for the Most Part

As mentioned before, ‘Fistful of Vengeance’ was filmed in Thailand, with Bangkok specifically being acting as the playground for our heroes; the plot also revolves around Asian mysticism, although it must be said that once you put terms like “the Dao” and “Jiangshi” aside, we’re basically stuck with vampires and elder gods. Some no-good cultists want to resurrect a man with god-like powers who will then supposedly tear apart the fabric of space-time, and our superpowered hero and his buddies must do something about it; not exactly original, and while the plot feels both bare-bones and needlessly scattered, it’s also admirably lacking in pretentiousness.

The representation mainly comes in the form of the locales, along with the cast, and while you could accuse the movie of leaning towards tourist tropes with the Bangkok setting, it’s also not a movie that has to remind its audience that most of the heroes and villains are, in fact, Asian. Really, the film is at its best when the audience is not experiencing downtime, and is instead witnessing some pretty competent action choreography, wherein Iko Uwais and company show off their skills with the minimum number of things getting in the way. Overall, this is an East-Asian adventure yarn that rightfully feels no need to justify itself, in an age where it’s now become easier than ever to enlighten oneself with international media.

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‘Fistful of Vengeance’: Juicy Martial Arts Action — Now with CG Blood!

I really do feel like a curmudgeon when I say this, but I miss the days when violence in action movies was achieved through (at least mostly) practical means; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that recent landmarks in the genre like ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ are deceptively clever in how they mix practical effects with CGI. Of course, ‘Fistful of Vengeance’ has to contend with the fact that, given it involves supernatural wibbly-wobbly powers, CGI is called for in at least some moments during fights. The moments of wibbly-wobbly fireworks in the midst of practical hand-to-hand combat are in themselves forgivable, and do little to detract from the fight choreography.

What I do find less forgivable, to the point of it being a touch irksome, is the reliance on CG blood for the more violent outbursts. On the whole, the gore in ‘Fistful of Vengeance’ is fairly satisfying (assuming you’re a bloodhound like myself), but it must be said that the use of rather obvious CG blood lessens the impact considerably; I recall a specific moment where an evil henchman is shot point-blank in the head, in full view of the camera, but the blood that comes out is like video game blood. I’m not sure if there was a single squib used in ‘Fistful of Vengeance’, and that uncertainty disappoints me.

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Sound and Vision — Not Terribly Visionary

Perhaps the biggest letdown when watching ‘Fistful of Vengeance’ is that its direction and choices of music are uninspired. Looking at his body of work, it’s not too surprising that director Roel Reiné (who also acted as cinematographer here) has prior experience in low-budget action movies, with one or two Steven Seagal vehicles thrown in for good measure. I can’t say this definitively, but I have to assume Reiné loves his drones; there are several gratuitous bird’s-eye-view drone shots littered throughout ‘Fistful of Vengeance’, and rarely do they work to the movie’s benefit. The movie’s overall aesthetic is not unlike that of a middle-of-the-road TV series produced in the past decade, although there’s nothing particularly wrong with it.

The soundtrack, on the other hand, is more questionable on its face; I like Run the Jewels as much as the next person, but I don’t think one of their more downbeat tracks would fit appropriately with a fight sequence. (Is that Eminem? Excuse me?) Hip-hop needle drops aside, there are some pop-electronic songs that do little to reinforce Bangkok’s already-dazzling atmosphere, or the emotional weight of the plot. The very first song we hear is a cover of Phil Collins’s ‘In the Air Tonight’, and I have to wonder what had compelled the filmmakers to use a modern cover of the song, and not just the original version. With the film’s visuals, I can see a tight budget as the reason for why it looks the way it does, but the soundtrack gives one the strong impression of Hollywood trend-following.

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The Conclusion

Taken as a standalone movie, ‘Fistful of Vengeance’ is reasonably comprehensible, and as an action movie, it’s at least passable; I’ve seen action movies with smaller budgets, worse choreography, and far more ill-conceived plots than this. Unfortunately, I don’t know if anyone who is introduced to the world of ‘Wu Assassins’ through ‘Fistful of Vengeance’ will be strongly motivated to check out the source series, and I’m not sure if it will impress anyone who has already seen the likes of ‘The Way of the Dragon’, ‘Police Story’, and the criminally overlooked ‘The Man from Hong Kong.’ ‘Fistful of Vengeance’ is perfectly functional in bringing closure to a series that may or may not get renewed, but it’s not much more than just functional.

‘Fistful of Vengeance’ is currently streaming on Netflix.

CAST: Iko Uwais, Lewis Tan, Lawrence Kao, JuJu Chan, Pearl Thusi

CREW: Director: Roel Reiné, Writers: Cameron Litvack, Jessica Chou, Yalun Tu, Editor: Michael England, Producer: Yalun Tu

By Brian Collins

Click here to read The Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Cinema, TV and Media. An excerpt from the love letter: The Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, We have the space and time for all your stories, no matter who/what/where you are. Media/Cinema/TV have a responsibility to better the world and The Hollywood Insider will continue to do so. Talent, diversity and authenticity matter in Cinema/TV, media and storytelling. In fact, I reckon that we should announce “talent-diversity-authenticity-storytelling-Cinema-Oscars-Academy-Awards” as synonyms of each other. We show respect to talent and stories regardless of their skin color, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc., thus allowing authenticity into this system just by something as simple as accepting and showing respect to the human species’ factual diversity. We become greater just by respecting and appreciating talent in all its shapes, sizes, and forms. Award winners, which includes nominees, must be chosen on the greatness of their talent ALONE.

I am sure I am speaking for a multitude of Cinema lovers all over the world when I speak of the following sentiments that this medium of art has blessed me with. Cinema taught me about our world, at times in English and at times through the beautiful one-inch bar of subtitles. I learned from the stories in the global movies that we are all alike across all borders. Remember that one of the best symbols of many great civilizations and their prosperity has been the art they have left behind. This art can be in the form of paintings, sculptures, architecture, writings, inventions, etc. For our modern society, Cinema happens to be one of them. Cinema is more than just a form of entertainment, it is an integral part of society. I love the world uniting, be it for Cinema, TV. media, art, fashion, sport, etc. Please keep this going full speed.

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