On New Year’s Day, two complete seasons of an obscure series appeared on HBO Max underneath the intriguing banner: “Based on the Writings of Bruce Lee.” The series, Warrior, was born from an eight-page treatment by the actor from the 1960s unearthed by Lee’s daughter, Shannon, and developed for contemporary television by Fast and Furious director Justin Lin, screenwriter Jonathan Tropper, and Lee herself. While often acclaimed as the “best show you’re not watching,” Warrior’s critical success didn’t save it when AT&T from pulled the plug on all Cinemax original programming last year. But now that it’s been moved to HBO Max and in front of a lot more eyes, there may still be a shot at saving it, and that’s a hope worth working towards — Warrior is one of the most exciting shows around, not just for its best-in-class action but for its well-considered exploration of racial injustice, patriarchy, and the cruel whims of capitalism.
Forget It, Jun
Warrior centers around Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji, Peaky Blinders), a skilled but cocky martial artist who travels from China to San Francisco in 1870 and is immediately recruited into one of the city’s most powerful tongs, the Hop Wei. (It’s complicated, but the context of the show, “tong” essentially means “Chinese crime family.“) Ah Sahm came to bring his sister back to China, but he discovers that she has found a new life and new identity as Mai Ling (Diane Doan, Descendants), queen of the Hop Wei’s chief rivals, the Long Zii, and has no interest in returning. As the conflict between the tongs heats up, they must also contend with a greedy political machine, violent cops, and bitter out-of-work Irishmen.
While a work of fiction, Warrior is set during an important chapter in American history that is often overlooked — the arrival and exploitation of early Chinese-American immigrants, the Tong Wars, and the lead-up to the heinous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The history lesson wraps itself in the very familiar trappings of gangster movies, Westerns, martial arts flicks, and other gritty serialized cable dramas to become something you might pitch to friends and family as “Kung Fu Deadwood.”
Like any good gangster story, Warrior boasts an ensemble cast of charming characters to invest in and root for despite their being career killers fighting over who gets to sell drugs on which street corners. Justin Lin stable actor Jason Tobin plays Young Jun, the hotheaded and terminally horny heir to the Hop Wei throne. The Raid: Redemption star (and Sub-Zero in the upcoming Mortal Kombat film) Joe Taslim is Li Yang, the calm and disciplined Long Zii lieutenant who’s not-so-secretly sleeping with the boss’ wife.
The show’s best character is Wang Chao (Hoon Lee, Iron Fist), an exceedingly clever arms and information dealer who oozes cool and plays every faction in Chinatown to his advantage. Unlike other gangster stories, most of the gangsters are skilled martial artists and the conflicts are resolved via brutal, intricate fight sequences that outshine the action on the rest of American television. Star Andrew Koji is a multi-discipline martial artist and stunt performer who shows off his skills with a Bruce Lee-inspired swagger in nearly every episode.
Warrior has a phenomenal sense of style that goes far beyond the Hop Wei’s sharp suits or the endless supply of extravagant gowns and dazzling eye makeup of brothel madam and real-life historical figure Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng, The Stand). The series premiere quickly and efficiently introduces its unique handling of the language barrier between characters and the audience, switching from subtitled Cantonese to punchy, profanity-laced American English with a turn of the camera. We are immediately encouraged to relate to them the way they relate to each other, which only emphasizes the distance between the Chinese-American residents and their white counterparts, to whom most can only speak in short, heavily-accented English phrases. (It goes without saying that very few white characters make an effort to bridge the gap by learning any Cantonese.)
Warrior also stands apart in its unflinchingly harsh depiction of white authority. SFPD Sergeant Bill O’Hara (Kieran Bew, Da Vinci’s Demons) is the head of the Chinatown Squad, tasked with “keeping the Chinese in line,” a mission with which he has no objection whatsoever. O’Hara is a corrupt cop with a gambling addiction who solves most problems at the end of a nightstick, and who sees the Chinese as a nuisance unless he gets to know them personally and it suits him to acknowledge their personhood. His counterpart is Officer Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones, Copper), an uncommonly upstanding Georgia boy whose interest in actually solving crimes rather than beating up immigrants at random makes him a thorn in the department’s side and brings him nothing but misery. Still, Warrior unambiguously presents the police as a tool of white supremacy where one man with a social conscience can’t do a damn bit of good.
The police, of course, answer to the government, here represented by gasbag Mayor Samuel Blake (Christian McKay, Me & Orson Welles) and his sinister puppet master Deputy Mayor Walter Buckley (Langley Kirkwood, Banshee). Blake is in the pocket of white industrialists who see Chinese immigrants as a limitless source of cheap, expendable workers, while Buckley manipulates politicians, business owners, starving Irish workers, and even the tongs themselves to create as much chaos as possible so that he can sell the Chinese Exclusion Act on the national stage. Most of the cast of Warrior is portrayed with a degree of sympathy, but Blake and Buckley are framed as unquestionably evil. Buckley in particular represents how government and business can stoke racism and violence in order to further their own personal agendas and personal profit.
The Irish workingmen, led by gangster/labor leader Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger, Game of Thrones), are both villains and victims on Warrior. True to historical events, the Irish workers of San Francisco find themselves unemployed as industrialists replace them with newly-arrived Chinese workers. The new immigrants, like the Irish who preceded them, are escaping desperate hardship in their native lands and are now working themselves to death under hellish conditions for practically nothing because it’s the only option they have. It never occurs to Leary that this is simply history repeating and that the solution is to organize a true labor movement that would benefit all workers. He’s only interested in taking care of his own, so he rallies his followers around xenophobia and leads a campaign against Chinese labor and any business that utilizes it. The audience is made to understand Leary’s position, and even respect his efforts to keep his community fed, but never to root for him.
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Finish the Fight
Arguably the most sympathetic character on Warrior is Penelope Blake (Joanna Vanderham, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow), the First Lady of San Francisco who marries the charmless Mayor Blake in order to save her father’s steel mill. Penelope has sacrificed what little control over her life that 19th century America allows her, and spends much of the series trying to get it back. This struggle against patriarchal oppression is another recurring theme on Warrior. Mai Ling once made a similar sacrifice, marrying herself off to a warlord in China to spare her family his wrath, but now wields power of her own in America and is dead-set on keeping it. She knows that her circumstances offer her only two options: be a ruthless gangster, or be nobody. Like the historical figure on which she’s based, Ah Toy has carved out a space of her own as the owner/operator of Chinatown’s premier brothel, attempting to provide refuge from the unspeakable cruelty and violence of the male-run human trafficking that pocks San Francisco.
As one might expect from a gritty period crime drama, the dialogue in Warrior is wall-to-wall with ethnic slurs, which not all viewers will have a tolerance for. For a show that’s occupied with racial politics, the first season features exactly two Black characters, both of whom are killed via flashback as part of another character’s backstory without a line of dialogue. Warrior expands its lens on racial injustice slightly during the second season, spending an episode exploring white Americans’ theft of Mexican land in what became Southern California. True to the reputation of its original home, Cinemax, the first season of Warrior seems to have a predictable “tits per episode” quota, though the sex feels notably less gratuitous in season two. The tail end of the second season does up the level of brutality significantly to include depictions of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and a lynching, from which some viewers may want to steer clear, though these subjects are treated with an appropriate sense of gravity and are markedly divorced from the “fun TV violence” of the rest of the show.
Warrior’s extremely bingeable 20-episode run is now on HBO Max, where series creator/showrunner Jonathan Tropper hopes that a new wave of fans will help stir up the necessary interest to resume production. The cast is, according to Tropper, all game to return, and it’s all in the hands of the HBO Max’s executives. Given that parent company AT&T has put all their eggs in the Max basket this year, a renewal doesn’t seem so impossible. Had Warrior launched on HBO in the first place, this wouldn’t even be a conversation — Warrior would be the talk of the town. Now that it’s somewhere that a mass audience might actually find it, a series so distinct that can deftly balance action and social relevance must receive the chance it deserves to complete its story.