Cinemax’s new original show Warrior is a series that was over 40-years in the making. It is based on Bruce Lee’s treatment for a television series centered around a Chinese immigrant in the American West titled The Warrior, which was shopped to networks and ultimately rejected. Although Warner Brothers denied that they whitewashed his treatment into the show titled Kung Fu starring David Carradine, the similarities of the aired show and Lee’s treatment are extremely similar. The reason? Audiences weren’t ready for an Asian male lead, leaving Lee’s treatment and show un-aired.
Now, almost half a century later, Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, Justin Lin, of The Fast & the Furious fame, and Jonathon Trooper have brought Warrior to Cinemax. For more information on the history of Warrior, you can head on over to YouTube to watch the eight-part docuseries, Becoming Warrior, which chronicles Lee’s journey and the development and life of The Warrior.
Based on the writings of Lee, Warrior is a period drama, a western set in the 19th century, that follows the journey of Ah Sahm, played by Andrew Koji, as he comes to San Francisco with one goal in mind: to find a woman named Xiaojing.
As a Chinese immigrant, we see the Old West through his eyes. When thinking of the Old West on television, like Hell on Wheels, characters of color are often relegated to tropes and props in a story that isn’t their own, with agency removed. This period on television more often than not erases the existence and experiences of Chinese immigrants. But here, Ah Sahm is the focus, and from the opening scene, he lets the racist men he encounters, and viewers know that is his story, no one else’s.
When Wang Chao (Hoon Lee) sees Ah Sahm’s ability as a great fighter, he joins one of the Tongs in Chinatown, essentially becoming an enforcer for the organized crime family and a Hop Wei. This episode follows Ah Sahm as he’s taken in by the leader of the Tong’s son, Young Jun (Jason Tobin). We learn the ins and outs of Chinatown’s factions, its rules, its layout, and its status in San Francisco.
Warrior is set against the reality that is often forgotten. In period pieces, it’s hard to see stories that show a marginalized group that is outside of their trauma from that period. Most of the time, period stories about people of color are focused on their pain. That being said, Warrior is a show where the Chinese characters aren’t defined by the oppression they’re under: it is ever-present but their existence runs parallel to the stories we’ve already seen. The world that is created by interweaving characters that blend these paralleled experiences is alive, intricate, and immersive.
Chinatown has its own identity, its own rules, and every character introduced in episode one has their own agency. The largely Asian cast is at the forefront, with white characters moving in the background, specifically the top of the government and the working-class Irish. The show’s time period is budding up against the very real Chinese Exclusion Act, where this pulpy series will be dealing with the racism of the time period.
This episode is phenomenal and firing on all cylinders. It is a very human drama that is exploring the Chinese immigrant experience, that uses beautiful cinematography, making Chinatown and San Francisco a character in the show itself. Three things stand out in this episode that paints this series as a standout for 2019: the acting, the language, the action. With episode one standing as an introduction to the characters, we see a lot of superb acting. Not a single actor has a forgetful performance, but among them, Koji and Olivia Cheng who plays Ah Toy were my favorite.
Koji is an actor who’s acting extends to his fight scenes, his face and quips building a charismatic character who pulls in everyone in the show and at home. And his fear and frustration in his scenes with Xiaojing and Cheng are powerful and beautiful, with a woman who has seen a lot and has come out on top. Their chemistry on-screen is also undeniable. Their unique ability to have the viewer hang on their words are hypnotic when they are together. Plus, with all honesty, they may be the sexiest pairing on television.
One of the unique things Warrior does is weave languages, in the same way, it weaves its characters into each other’s paths. The episode uses both Cantonese and English. With language at the forefront in the first minutes of the episode, Ah Sahm’s reveal that he speaks English to the racist guards, and unaccented, sets up for how we see the rest of the cast of characters throughout the show. When Ah Sahm is walking to the Hop Wei with Chao the use of language starts in Cantonese (as identified in the closed captioning) with Young Jun and the rest of his crew. However, as Chao and Ah Sahm enter, it seamlessly shifts mid-sentence to English. As the audience, we are aware that they are indeed speaking Cantonese to each other, but with the series being made for an American audience, it’s shifted to English for viewers, and its important to note that the bulk of the English dialogue is written without accents.
Then, when Chao is approached by Big Bill in the street mid-joke, the language switches again, seamlessly into Cantonese from English, which shifts again when Chao speaks with Big Bill, which is then accented. This is a technique that I have not seen executed in any other show or film and it excites me.
As a Latina, seeing the ability to use native or cultural language alongside unaccented English serves as a standard for other shows to meet. I can’t explain it, but it adds dimension to the characters, it makes them more than their language and centers them in every scene. I hope to see this replicated in other media, as it’s truly amazing.
Finally, there is what many viewers tuned in for the fight scenes. Quick and to the point, the martial arts scenes in this episode are perfectly edited and executed. In fact, the speed of the sequences and brevity define this show’s action in a beautiful way that both pays homage to Lee without becoming a clone.
Lee’s mannerisms while fighting are replicated by both Koji and Joe Taslim as Li Yong, along with their costuming, and call-backs to iconic moments or stills of Lee that define these sequences, but their execution is unique. In the fights, Koji brings his own presence and charisma that, while channeling Lee, is not an imitation. Every kick, foot shuffle, and nose wipe are perfect.
This style of fight choreography will also lend well when we move into more of a focus on the Tong wars and see the large action sequences hinted at in the trailers. With small quick and small movements, a close-quarters brawl will be highly entertaining, dynamic, and fluid. Not to mention, I can’t wait to see a certain swordswoman in the spotlight of her own scene.
Overall, episode one, “The Itchy Onion,” is a powerful series premiere for Warrior. It is a new lens and story in the world of the Old West. In one episode I am pulled into the world this series is going and I wish I didn’t have to wait a week for the next episode.
Warrior airs every Friday on Cinemax at 10/9 CST.
Warrior, Episode 1 - The Itchy Onion
“The Itchy Onion,” is a powerful series premiere for Warrior. It is a new lens and story in the world of the Old West. In one episode I am pulled into the world this series is going and I wish I didn’t have to wait a week for the next episode.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.