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The one that got away from Bruce Lee: Season 1 of "Warrior"

by Lynn Lee

Did you know that the 1970s TV show “Kung Fu” was based on an uncredited pitch by Bruce Lee?  According to Lee’s widow, Warner Brothers liked (and poached) his idea of a martial arts master wandering the American West but passed him over for the lead role in favor of David Carradine. Warner Brothers claims they’d already had the concept for “Kung Fu” in the works when Lee proposed his own series (called “The Warrior”) to the studio in 1971.  But even if you believe them, it’s hard not to wonder what a version of the show that starred Bruce Lee might have looked like. 

Nearly half a century later, Lee’s daughter Shannon, director-producer Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow, various The Fast and the Furious installments), and writer-producer Jonathan Tropper (This is Where I Leave You, “Banshee”) have created a Cinemax TV series that attempts to realize his original vision while updating it for a new generation...

Not only is the chief protagonist of “Warrior” an Asian American immigrant; the entire show is focused on a Chinese American community – specifically, Chinatown in late 19th century San Francisco, at the outset of the Tong Wars – and features a cast largely populated by little-known American, British, and Canadian actors of Asian heritage.  That’s something Bruce Lee probably would never have gotten and is a huge landmark in itself, even in a post-Crazy Rich Asians world.  And while it’s impossible to say what Lee would have thought of the end product, there’s no denying it’s a lot of fun, both as a chopsocky action fest and as a pulpy historical drama that packs a surprisingly edgy contemporary punch.

The series gets off to a brisk start, as hero Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) arrives from China armed with a specific purpose (he’s looking for someone), perfect English (thanks to an American grandfather), and, um, a very particular set of skills (you can guess).  The first two facts he keeps close to the vest; the third, however, he demonstrates as soon as he steps off the boat and makes short work of a decidedly not-welcoming committee of white racists.  Ah Sahm’s fighting prowess gets him quickly conscripted by one of the local tongs, the Hop Wei, and drawn into their growing feud with one of their rivals, the Long Zii, who’s been encroaching on their opium-smuggling territory.  He also experiences firsthand the virulent racism of a society that both depends on the Chinese immigrants and despises them as an inferior species.  

“Warrior,” which was recently renewed for a second season (yay!), isn’t a Western in the classic sense that Lee envisioned, although there’s an enjoyable bottle episode at the midpoint of the first season set in a saloon in a literal one no-horse town, that feels like an ironic hat tip to the original “Kung Fu.”  The writers clearly have broader historical and contemporary issues in mind, as the conflict between the tongs becomes intertwined with their conflict with the Irish working class who view them as a threat to their own livelihood and way of life. The series also involves the backroom politics of a city torn between the xenophobes and the rich capitalists who want to keep the cheap labor coming.  The show even occasionally resembles a 19th century police procedural as the city responds to the anti-Chinese outcry by setting up a squad dedicated to policing Chinatown.  In fact, two of the members of the squad – an earnest rookie (Tom Weston-Jones) with a natural detective’s eye and unusually enlightened racial views, despite having migrated to SF from the deep South, and his much more jaded and corrupt superior (Kieran Bew) – almost feel like they’re in their own show within the larger show.

There’s arguably too much going on here, and the political subplots thus far have felt more like table-setting for future developments.  Unsurprisingly, “Warrior” feels most assured when it focuses on the tongs and in particular, their sharply choreographed fight sequences, which are kinetic, thrilling, and graceful – also quite brutal, yet the violence, while frequently graphic, doesn’t feel gratuitous.  (The same can’t quite be said about the mostly female nudity and sexytimes, which just feel like sops to cable audiences.)  In between the fights “Warrior” looks pretty great, too: shot mainly on sets in South Africa, it manages to borrow something of the chiaroscuro aesthetic of “The Knick” crossed with the stylish gangbanging swagger of BBC’s “Peaky Blinders.” 

The show has its flaws, of course, including the aforementioned overstuffed plot and too many characters that simply don’t have enough time to be fully developed.  Oddly it’s actually the hero, Ah Sahm, who feels most underwritten, at least when it comes to his motives. For a man of action he seems frustratingly passive, especially once his single purpose for coming to America is stymied.  One wonders, and several characters actually ask him, why he’s sticking around.  Maybe that’s for season two to explore, but in the meantime Ah Sahm comes across as aimless when he’s not unleashing his feet and fists.  It doesn’t help that Koji, though he looks the part and has the presence, doesn’t quite have Bruce Lee’s charisma. 

Outside the combat scenes, Ah Sahm tends to get upstaged by the other Chinese characters, most notably Jason Tobin as the hotheaded heir apparent of the Hop Wei and Hoon Lee as an amoral black market dealer who mediates between the tongs.  The women, too, despite being confined to the usual stock roles in a 19th century man’s world (wives, mistresses, prostitutes), demonstrate unusual power and agency that make them – especially Olivia Cheng as a brothel madam with a secret life and Dianne Doan as the de facto leader of one of the tongs – in many ways the most interesting figures to watch.  Here’s hoping that season 2 will give them more to do, and will give Ah Sahm a new purpose.

The Season 1 finale of WARRIOR airs tomorrow (Friday, June 7th) on Cinemax.


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Reader Comments (4)

How did I not know about this show? I'll put this on my watch list immediately. Andrew Koji is so fine.

June 7, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

Bey -- i didn't know about this show either until Lynn told me about it. Agreed on Koji.

June 7, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This sounds cool. Oh how I wish Bruce was still alive today.

June 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnon

Great review of an exciting and refreshing production from Cinemax which is currently airing in Australia.

Saw 1st episode and was hooked! Binge watched in 1 day and enjoyed it much. Bruce Lee would have been proud of the show and its enjoyable entertainment value!. Agree there might be at times too much to follow plot wise but the various characters and how they intertwine into each others story-lines are intriguing.

Surprisingly for me , the most fascinating character is Olivia Cheung`s brothel madam and she and Ah Sahm have great chemistry and not necessarily in a romantic way (although one gets a smidgen of "there is something of that too."). I think should the series continue that their relationship albeit as partners for a cause or foes will be the most interesting to follow.

Having enjoyed Kung Fu films in my youth, it`s quite welcome to see the martial arts form in a tv show and the fight scenes are amazing. Andrew Koji does a good job as the fine looking protagonist in season 1 and I`m certain we`ll get his character fleshed out in S2. 4/5 rating!

July 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVee

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