Period drama Warrior brings Bruce Lee’s vision to vivid life after 50 years

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Andrew Koji plays Ah Sahm, a master martial artist who comes to San Francisco's Chinatown and gets drawn in the infamous tong wars.
Enlarge / Andrew Koji plays Ah Sahm, a master martial artist who comes to San Francisco's Chinatown and gets drawn in the infamous tong wars.
HBO/David Bloomer


There's juicy political intrigue, forbidden love, and plenty of kung-fu fighting in Warrior, a new ten-episode series from Cinemax. The series is adapted from a treatment developed by legendary kung fu master Bruce Lee nearly 50 years ago, and while it's been updated to suit contemporary tastes and trends, it still manages to capture the essence of Bruce Lee's philosophical worldview.

(Mild spoilers below.)

According to Hollywood lore, Bruce Lee pitched an idea in 1971 for a TV series about a martial artist in the Old West. Skittish studio heads passed on the project (and on Lee as its star), opting to make Kung Fu with David Carradine instead. Lee's daughter, Shannon Lee, heard these stories, too. When she took over management of her father's legacy in 2000 as president of the Bruce Lee Foundation, among the archived materials was Lee's original treatment, along with several drafts and notes. It stayed in storage for several years, until Lee mentioned its existence to executive producer Justin Lin (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift). Lin loved the treatment and thought they could make the series that her father had always intended.

When Cinemax green-lit the project, they brought Jonathan Tropper on board as creator and executive producer. Tropper had just wrapped the final season of Banshee for the cable channel, and he was a Bruce Lee uber-fan, so he jumped at the chance to work on the project. “I could quote every [Bruce Lee] movie,” he said. “So the little boy in me was super excited.” He was surprised to find that the original treatment also featured numerous illustrations: Bruce Lee had an artistic bent and drew various characters and fight moves to augment his writing. The treatment was sparse enough that Tropper had freedom to flesh out the plot and create new characters. “All I had to do was be true to the integrity of the themes he wanted to explore,” he said—namely, the Chinese immigrant experience in 19th century San Francisco.

With a martial arts prodigy as its protagonist, Warrior boasts some impressive fight choreography.

In the pilot episode of Warrior, a young Chinese martial arts prodigy, Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji, Fast and Furious 6: HK Police), arrives in 19th-century San Francisco. He left China to find his sister but soon finds himself embroiled with the Tong Wars, a period of particularly violent disputes between rival Chinese gangs, called tongs, in the Chinatowns of several American cities. (There were as many as 30 tongs in San Francisco alone at the height of the Tong Wars.) Ah Sahm also must contend with rising anti-immigrant sentiment against the Chinese.

Tonally, the series is akin to shows like Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire—all gritty period dramas centered on criminal pursuits of one kind or another. But with a martial arts prodigy as its protagonist, Warrior also boasts some impressive fight choreography. And it very much reflects a 21st century sensibility in its predominantly Asian cast; there's not a trace of whitewashing in sight. There's also none of the dated, cheesy aphorisms that made Kung Fu such a hit with mainstream white audiences in the 1970s. Rather, Lee's personal philosophy is deftly woven into the fabric of the show.

Ah Sahm's tong brotherhood includes Bolo (Rich Ting, center left) and Young Jun (Jason Tobin, center right).
Enlarge / Ah Sahm's tong brotherhood includes Bolo (Rich Ting, center left) and Young Jun (Jason Tobin, center right).
HBO/David Bloomer

Lee's original treatment followed a typical 1970s episodic format, with a self-contained adventure in each. “TV is not really made that way anymore, so we definitely had to update it for how stories are told on TV nowadays,” said Shannon Lee. “But the bones of it are all in the treatment: the time period, the San Francisco setting, the politics of the time, the fact that [Ah Sahm] is looking for his sister.” The martial arts master did his homework on the history of the period, researching the Chinese Exclusion Act and other details of 19th century San Francisco. That historical element of the Chinese American experience was also a draw for Lin. It's a key period in US history, and yet, “Growing up, we're lucky to have two sentences in a history book,” he said.

Warrior puts the corrupt politics and simmering racial tensions front and center—something that might have been glossed over by Hollywood back in the 1970s. The Chinese immigrants are “onions.” The white folk are “ducks” who are shocked that Ah Sahm speaks impeccable English, and they still turn up their noses at having to share a stagecoach with “dirty” foreigners. There are opportunists like Wang Chao (Hoon Lee, Banshee, Iron Fist) who seek to play both sides, deliberately fostering hostility between the tongs for fun and profit. To quote Game of Thrones‘ Littlefinger, “Chaos is a ladder“—and Chao and Mai Ling (Dianne Doan, Vikings), Ah Sahm's estranged sister, want to climb that ladder to wealth and power. On top of all that, there is no love lost between the Chinese immigrants and the Irish working class, who are competing for the same backbreaking jobs in an increasingly tight economy.

The same is true for the series' unapologetic use of profanity, nudity, and explicit violence and sex (aka “getting sticky”), although Lee points out that Enter the Dragon was rated R for just those reasons (even if it's still quite tame by contemporary standards). “My father was certainly not shy about any of that,” she said. That said, “He did not believe in [gratuitous] violence for its own sake, so the action in the show is all thought-out as to why it's happening.”

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