With the arrival of the long-gestating “Warrior” on Cinemax, justice for Bruce Lee has never tasted so bloody bittersweet. The martial arts legend pitched the concept for a series in which he’d star as a Chinese hired muscle in the Old West, but instead, the concept was tweaked and became the whitewashed “Kung Fu” series starring David Carradine. Nearly 50 years later, Lee’s original vision has come to television thanks to his daughter Shannon Lee, “Fast and the Furious” director Justin Lin, and “Banshee” creator Jonathan Tropper. As direct and forceful as Bruce Lee’s famed one-inch punch, “Warrior” is short on subtlety but delivers all the adrenaline-pumping martial arts smackdowns one would expect from both the master and from Cinemax’s brutal brand.
In the series, Chinese immigrant Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) arrives in San Francisco 1878 on a personal mission, but when his fighting skills come to light, he’s soon sold to be a hatchet man for the Hop Wei, the most powerful tong in Chinatown. But the rival tong, the Long Xii, is beginning to challenge that supremacy, while the white police force and politicians respond to a growing anti-Chinese sentiment in America.
The first episode, written by Tropper and directed by Assaf Bernstein, is a shaky start as it attempts to introduce every major player in the massive cast. Beyond the meaty tong war storyline, the series throws in plots about the business-minded madam Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng), the oppressed mayor’s wife (Joanna Vanderham), a ruthless leader (Dean S. Jagger) of Irish malcontents, an ambitious deputy-mayor (Langley Kirkwood), and two cops whose principles are tested. Perhaps because of this overload and a need for expediency, everyone’s motivations in the season-opener are far too explicit and therefore lose the impact of discovery and suspense. However, as the season progresses, the show picks up momentum as it relies less on spelling out what’s happening and just gets down to the double-dealing and murder at hand.
And there is plenty of killing. “Warrior” is primed to fill that “Into the Badlands”-shaped hole in fans’ hearts when it ends in May. But while the AMC series leans more toward high-flying, fantastical fighting as befits the show’s post-apocalyptic wuxia trappings, the fighting in “Warrior” is far grittier and more grounded. The show’s characters often refer to “scrapping,” which accurately describes the flavor of the down-and-dirty dustups Ah Sahm and his closest Hop Wei pal Young Jun (Jason Tobin) engage in. Although the police might use guns, most of the action on screen is close combat, which makes the violence more personal and therefore brutal.
Koji, who trained in wing chun and Shaolin kung fu, acquits himself well as he channels Bruce Lee’s flair and swagger despite Ah Sahm’s more inscrutable demeanor. His moves are efficient and powerful, although not as fluid and impressive as fellow castmembers’ Joe Taslim (a pro judo athlete who portrays rival tong enforcer Li Yong) and Rich Ting (a tae kwon do black belt who portrays Hop Wei muscle Bolo). Plenty of medium and wide shots allow the performers to show off their skills without visual trickery or gimmicky prop usage, and stunt coordinator Brett Chan is never at a loss for dynamic moves and scenarios.
“Warrior” provides plenty of reasons for these people to resort to violence as an outlet for the simmering anger born of institutionalized and overt racism. It’s rare for any fictional medium to fully engage in the politics of how the Chinese were treated in the 19th century. It’s yet another chapter of history that Americans would rather forget or gloss over, but the impact of those injustices can still be felt more than a century later. Frequent use of racial slurs like “chink” and “slant” is just a taste of the outrages that the real immigrants faced, and “Warrior” sets the stage for greater injustices such as racial profiling, a registry, denial of rights, and ethnic cleansing that led to the lynching of men, women, and children in Chinatowns across the country.
This series would make a great companion piece to PBS’ “American Experience” documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act,” which examines the horrifying legislation that was passed blocking the immigration of Chinese while also denying citizenship of Chinese nationals who were born in the United States. Some of the issues outlined in that documentary — such as the outrageous expense of bringing one’s wife over to America — are touched upon lightly in “Warrior,” which provides a compelling picture of the frustrated Chinese person, brought to America to provide cheap labor and then vilified as an Other.
In the wake of broadly appealing fare like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Searching,” “Warrior” tells a different type of Asian American tale, one that challenges many of the ingrained and damaging stereotypes. It’s gratifying as a platform for representation, especially when it allows the characters to be unapologetically Chinese, such as maintaining their Chinese names and not changing Ah Sahm to Adam or anything more Anglo-friendly.
Less gratifying is the portrayal of women in what is a testosterone-laden show, both in front of and behind the camera. The writers and directors on the series are all men, an imbalance that can be felt in the storytelling and male gaze. Two female characters — Ah Toy and Mai Ling (Dianne Doan) — are given the most agency and prove themselves as impressive in their own right, but they’re nevertheless identified first in relationship to men and as being strong in masculine (violent) ways. However, for the most part, women are either wives or whores on the show, and this gender inequality can especially be seen in the brothel where full-frontal nudity only applies to the women. Even “Game of Thrones” and “The Leftovers” had understood the power of subjecting its male characters to the same treatment.
Nevertheless, “Warrior” has its charms and much like a Chinese “Peaky Blinders” or “Gangs of New York,” it’s best when it leans into mankind’s reaction to corruption and injustice. In an increasingly angry world that continues to demonize people out of fear, “Warrior” provides a reflection and catharsis, all wrapped in a badass bow.
”Warrior” premieres on Friday, April 5 at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.