The last time Jonathan Tropper brought a television series to Cinemax it was with Banshee, a crime thriller that fit in perfectly with the high-octane, revved-engine quality so often employed by HBO’s little sibling with series like Strike Back and the regrettably one-and-done hitman drama Quarry. All three series radiate a similar kind of overtly masculine and overwhelmingly pulpy energy that makes them admittedly part of a brand and usually a lot of fun to watch. That’s certainly the case with Tropper’s latest Cinemax outing Warrior, a martial arts epic set in mid-19th century San Francisco, the idea of which comes from none other than perhaps the most famous martial arts master of all time, Bruce Lee.
Lee wrote the treatment for what would become Warrior more than half a century ago, but was unable to see the project come to fruition. The treatment told the story of Ah Sahm, a hatchet man during San Francisco Tong Wars, who would eventually set forth on a journey to liberate Chinese people in the American West. Decades have now passed and Lee’s daughter, Shannon, along with executive producer Justin Lin and the aforementioned Tropper have assembled to bring that story to life and see it updated to fit not only the sensibilities of television in 2019, but also those of the network on which is airs.
Though Warrior could have easily been a straightforward action series and period drama, one that mixes in and proves its martial arts bona fides with stunning regularity. During the first few episodes (eight of the first season’s ten were screened for critics ahead of the premiere) that is mostly what audiences get. Highly choreographed fights break out with regularity, mostly to show off the cocky brilliance of Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) and to establish who’s who in the dusty, still wild streets of 1870s San Francisco. There are other brawls, too, like the bare knuckle dust-ups favored by the city’s Irish population — headed up by Dean Jagger’s corrupt Dylan Leary — and some bloodier battles that involve sharper instruments, like knives and, yes, hatchets. In other words, the series very quickly gets to the work of checking off the requisite boxes proving it is in fact the stuff Cinemax’s dreams are made of.
Though it probably could be Warrior isn’t wall-to-wall fight sequences, instead it very quickly sets out to address the overt racism and oppression of the Chinese in and around San Francisco. The show’s opening sequence does its level best to exemplify the two sides of its narrative ambitions, putting Ah Sahm face-to-face with a trio of dock workers abusing Chinese immigrants as they arrive in the city. This, of course, puts Ah Sahm on the radar of the local crime syndicate by way of Wang Chao, played by Banshee alum Hoon Lee. Soon, Ah Sahm is the favorite new toy of Young Jin (Jason Tobin), who, along with Lee, is part of a primarily Asian cast that brings plenty of charm and force of personality to the series.
But Ah Sahm hasn’t arrived on American soil just to throw some punches and serve as a low-rent hatchet man for a crime boss, he’s searching for his estranged sister Mai Ling (Dianne Doan). The brother-sister dynamic helps give Ah Sahm’s story some weight, as it leads directly into his and Mai Ling’s mysterious backstory, one that involves tough choices made by both that set them on what appears to be a morally destructive path. That Ah Sahm and Mai Ling continue to walk down that troublesome path is part of what makes Warrior interesting beyond its copious fisticuffs and the increasingly bloody encounters for which it will likely make a name for itself.
Other subplots aren’t quite as interesting from the start, but show promise nevertheless. Kieran Bew plays corrupt cop Bill O’Hara, whose emotional scars from the Civil War cut deeper than the physical ones, and are made worse by his new partner Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones, Copper) being a Southern-born transplant to the West. Also represented is the city’s mayor Samuel Blake (Christian McKay) and his new wife, Penelope (Joanna Vanderham), as they find themselves in an awkward position as San Francisco sits on the brink of an opium war between the rival Tong clans.
Koji makes for a charming lead who is as convincing in the martial segments as he is during other, more heated exchanges, like those between him and Mai Ling or with local courtesan Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng). Notably, Koji doesn’t attempt to do an impersonation of Bruce Lee — something Shannon Lee told Screen Rant she wasn’t interested in seeing — and instead infuses Ah Sahm with a similar sort of confidence and sense of humor Lee brought to many of his roles, while still making the character distinctly his own. That will likely serve the series well, as it continues to define itself over the course of the first season, though it doesn’t have far to go since the blend of martial arts and blood-and-thunder drama makes Warrior a fascinatingly exaggerated period piece that’s part and parcel with Cinemax’s brand.
Warrior continues next Friday with ‘There’s No China in the Bible’ @10pm on Cinemax.