A film review by Craig J. Koban February 28, 2022

FISTFUL OF VENGEANCE j

2022, R, 94 mins.

Iko Uwais as Kai Jin  /  Lewis Tan as Lu Xin Lee  /  Jason Tobin as William Pan  /  Katrina Grey as Interpol Agent  /  Rhatha Phongam as Ku An Qi  /  Juju Chan as Zan Hui  /  Pearl Thusi as Zama  /  Lawrence Kao as Tommy Wah

Directed by Roel Reiné  /  Written by Cameron Litvack and Yalun Tu

ORIGINAL FILM

I don't consider myself a super hero by any definition, but I saw FISTFUL OF VENGEANCE so you never have to...and I don't think that I should ever have to convince you of my bravery in the future.  

This new Netflix produced martial arts supernatural fantasy is a standalone movie sequel to the TV series WU ASSASSINS, which was also produced by the streaming giant and ended its short run by failing to tie up loose ends as well as offering up more than a bit of larger franchise bait.  According to one of the film's stars Lawrence Kao: "You don't necessarily have to watch the first season to understand what's going on."  Hmmmmm...I'll directly challenge that by saying that if audience members are unfamiliar with its antecedent series then they will be thoroughly and hopelessly lost within FISTFUL OF VENGEANCE's first several minutes of lighting quick expositional dumps...or they might be bored senseless, as I surely was.  For me (even with my cursory understanding of WU ASSASSINS), I found this film to be like a systematically awful and borderline unwatchable 90 minute music video that's masquerading as an action movie. 

This film (again, if I can even call it that) brings back most of the cast of WU ASSASSINS (Koa, Lewis Tan, and Iko Uwais), but their characters come off as blandly interchangeable within the first few minutes of being introduced to uninitiated viewers here.  FISTFUL OF VENGEANCE almost has no first act whatsoever in the manner it hastily and clumsily thrusts us into the thick of things with these characters, and sometimes this works in films when they don't over explain themselves too much, but here it's almost information overload. Tommy (Kao) serves as the ringmaster, so to speak, early on by establishing the universe particulars: He has two super power BFFs in Kai Jin (Uwais) and Lu Xin (Ran), with Kai in particular having the martial arts might of a thousand monks (I'm left wondering what the average martial art gusto of just one monk is, but never mind).  This trio has made a pilgrimage to Thailand is search of the persons responsible for the murder of Tommy's sister.  We do get to see Kai and Lu show off their gravity defying kung fu chops in an opening sequence set in a garish nightclub that strained my eyes and gave me a quick migraine.   

 

 

Anyhoo', the lads have discovered an ancient MacGuffin material from the Bangkok night club after kicking some jiangshis (vampires) ass.  They eventually cross paths with a duplicitous minded entrepreneur named William Pan (Jason Tobin), who conveniently has the power to stop time (but not the Netflix stream that contains this movie).  Pan has some Intel on a mega crime boss named Ku An Qi (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), but you just know that something is definitely up with Pan from the moment he's introduced.  Complicating the lives of the main three heroes is Tommy hooking up with a sprightly local guide, Preeya (Francesca Corney), not to mention that Lu has some on-again, off-again sexual tension with the beautiful, but lethal Interpol Agent Zama (Pearl Thusi), who looks less like an Interpol Agent and more like a runway model that just stumbled on to the set of this film.  At this stage I was so pathetically indifferent about everything and everyone in FISTFUL OF VENGEANCE that I started wondering how long it would take before we get some shoehorned in soap opera inspired sex scenes between these parties.  Don't worry, we do get nudity and sex here, but it's so hilariously over-choreographed, amateurishly staged and lacking in any eroticism that you want to reach out to the screen and check the pulses of the actors to make sure that they are indeed alive.  Moments like this are born for the sarcastic personas of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 to openly mock in the future. 

I don't watch martial arts fantasies for nudity and sex scenes, mind you (although I'm not against gratuitous usage of both to wake me up out of pathetic apathy), nor do I seek them out for solid character dynamics.  But to say that there's very little, if any, tangible chemistry between any of these leads is the grandest of understatements.  There are definitely attempts by the makers here to make FISTFUL OF VENGEANCE hard edged and earn a very hard R rating (f-bombs, bloodletting, and bare asses and chests galore here), but these efforts seem desperate, at best.  The corny beyond belief dialogue that these poor actors are subjected to are a cringe inducing slog to sit through when it's not a pure test of will to survive all of the world building explanations on display here.  I guess what we're ultimately left with in FISTFUL OF VENGEANCE is its look and its action/stunts, but why - oh why! - is this film so ugly looking?  Director Roel Reiné seems to paint every single scene in the film with the most garish color filters that makes sequences look like some sort of perverse acid trip from hell.  This becomes something that's simply hard to look at.   

As for the martial arts mayhem contained within?  Individual fight sequences (peppered with liberal amounts of kung fu and super powers) ranges from bone crunchingly serviceable to frustratingly ill conceived and lacking in coherence and symmetry.  Reine has this nasty habit of hyper over-editing just about every fisticuff moment in the film, whether it be utilizing dizzying camera angles or shifting perspectives, incoherent spatial relationships, hideous CGI, or an obsessive compulsive usage of bombastic pop tunes blaring on the soundtrack that would have been better served being completely omitted in every instance here.  That's not to say that none of these scenes work: FISTFUL OF VENGEANCE contains a few standout moments here and there to appropriately wet the appetites of die hard chopsockey fans that demand their stars use everything in their arsenal (whether it be their fists, feet, guns, knives, swords, machetes, cars, etc.) to gain artery spewing victory over one another.  The violence is appropriately on point here, to be fair, but it's all brutality without much visual wit or imagination.  If the JOHN WICK films represent the upper echelon of the qualitative action genre spectrum, then FISTFUL OF VENGEANCE disappointingly occupies the opposite lower hemisphere, digs a hole into the ground, and sticks its head in it.   

And, to be honest, this film is a dreadful waste of Uwais' obvious talents as a physical performer.  Remember him in films like THE RAID REDEMPTION?  I may have been in the minority for not appreciating them as much as its legion of devotees, but that film's pornographic extremes with its violence was like ballet compared to what's on display here (and Uwais' proven might and dexterity as a martial arts dynamo is kind of tossed to the sidelines).  What Uwais - and his co-stars - don't have (like, say, a Jackie Chan before them) is any discernible charm or natural charisma.  The actors in FISTFUL OF VENGEANCE are like blank-expressioned posable action figures tossed into the wanton chaos that is this story, and no amount of would-be colorful spectacle here is a substitute for solid storytelling, a compelling universe, and characters that we legitimately care about.  By the time this film hurtled towards its over-produced and hyper caffeinated climax I simply forgot what the stakes were and who related to who in fighting for said stakes.  FISTFUL OF VENGEANCE was clearly "made for fans" of the TV series that preceded it, but it's the kind of embarrassingly terrible and instantly disposable film that makes you ponder what the fuss was with the show in the first place.

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