Midway through the second and final season of Cinemax’s 19th century martial arts epic Warrior, the show’s Bruce Lee-esque hero Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) and his best friend Young Jun (Jason Tobin) find themselves surrounded by dozens of trained killers who have been offered a huge bounty to take them out. Young Jun clutches his trademark knives and asks, “Any ideas?” Ah Sahm raises his powerful fists and replies, “Just the usual.”
For the last decade, “just the usual” on Cinemax on Friday nights has involved fists, knives, pistols, rifles, and the occasional flamethrower or explosive ordnance. It has been one of the most consistently underrated pleasures on TV since 2011 — a time when people thought of Cinemax as HBO’s cheaper, porn-ier little brother, more often referred to as “Skinemax” than by its actual name.
Back then, the executives running the pay-cable channel knew they couldn’t compete with their corporate sibling in prestige, ambition, or even budgets, so they opted to attack the original series game from a different angle. HBO would have its lofty dramas on Sunday nights (Game of Thrones had premiered that spring), while Cinemax would lean into its pulpy-bordering-on-trashy reputation with a collection of Friday-night action series. The blueprint for these shows would be B- and C-movie thrillers starring the likes of Jason Statham that had long been a Cinemax staple, right along with the gratuitously nude ones. (And don’t worry. There would be plenty of nudity here, too.)
First up was Strike Back, a drama about a globe-trotting British special forces unit called Section 20. A previous season had been made for the UK’s Sky One, starring Richard Armitage and a pre-Walking Dead Andrew Lincoln. Cinemax stepped in to co-produce a mildly rebooted version, now focused on Philip Winchester as upright veteran Michael Stonebridge and Sullivan Stapleton as his new partner, a disgraced American soldier named Damian Scott. The Cinemax version’s inaugural two-parter(*) found the odd couple in a New Delhi hotel, caught between a group of Pakistani terrorists and their hostages, a bomb literally hanging over their heads.
(*) One of the most clever things Strike Back did was to structure its seasons as a collection of two-part stories, as Stonebridge and Scott slowly but surely followed links in the chain to that year’s big bad. It broke down each season into a collection of movie-style adventures in different locales, and in the process kept any one aspect of the larger story from feeling like it was being dragged out. A whole lot of recent serialized dramas would do well to borrow the idea, but that would perhaps require the people making them to be aware that Strike Back existed.
Then, this happened, and I knew I was here for whatever foolishness would follow it:
Stonebridge’s shoestring bomb catch was far from the most ludicrous thing either of those characters would do across four seasons. (After a brief hiatus, the series returned with a new cast, while Winchester and Stapleton moved on to higher-profile work on NBC, like Law & Order: SVU and Blindspot.) But there was something instantly endearing about the way the show didn’t apologize for the silliness of it, or for similarly over-the-top moments. Instead, it tried to make the best possible version of the silliness that it could. The stunts were always executed with verve. Winchester played things just straight enough to make Section 20’s adventures feel vaguely plausible. Stapleton metaphorically winked enough with his performance that it was clear even the people making this show knew it was ultimately all in fun. (Stapleton also tended to be the one involved in the kinds of love scenes that Cinemax viewers had come to expect; eventually that show and its successors found a careful balance between sexiness and shamelessness.)
Strike Back kicked off a decade of Cinemax dramas — some British co-productions, others made in-house. All of them had some kind of thriller component — even the channel’s one real stab at an awards player, Steven Soderbergh’s 1900 New York hospital drama The Knick, had periodic fight scenes, and a main character who got into a lot of trouble with cocaine and opium — and almost all were executed at a much higher level than their premise and setting required.
Not every one of these shows worked, but it was a fun-as-hell decade. And now, with Friday night’s premiere of this second and final season of Warrior, the Cinemax era is coming to an end.
Given the focus by WarnerMedia’s new corporate overlords on the confusingly-titled HBO Max(*), it is perhaps not a surprise that Cinemax’s original programming operation has been shut down. But it’s nonetheless a disappointment.
(*) The most annoying/maddening aspect of the name is that you can’t, at the moment, watch a single Cinemax original on HBO Max. Their shows, old and new, are only available to stream if you already subscribe to Cinemax. Warrior will reportedly be added to the streaming service sometime after this second season airs on Cinemax, and hopefully others will follow once that door gets opened a crack. But it’s astounding that HBO Max’s original bosses (who have since been replaced by HBO president Casey Bloys) wanted no part of any of the Cinemax shows just to beef up their library content. If nothing else, every episode of The Knick was directed by Soderbergh and features Clive Owen and Andre Holland, which feels exactly like the kind of discovery viewers love to come across on streamers.
This is the way the business is going at the moment, with cable channels like A&E, Pop, TV Land, and WGN, among many others, getting out of the scripted game over the last few years, even as the various streamers keep beefing up their original content. But cable channels tend to think much more about their brands than streaming services do. The organizing principle of HBO Max’s originals to this point appears to be, “Here are a bunch of shows we could get the rights to.” Cinemax’s dozen-odd originals from the past decade could vary significantly in quality and setting, but you knew in the broadest strokes what you were going to get: larger-than-life characters, vivid set pieces, and tense atmosphere, among other core tenets. That certainty in an increasingly uncertain television world was a very reassuring thing.
Strike Back was soon followed by arguably the best of all the Cinemax pulp dramas: Banshee, starring a pre-The Boys Antony Starr as small-town Pennsylvania sheriff Lucas Hood — or, rather, an unnamed master thief who assumed the real Hood’s identity after he saw the lawman die within moments of arriving to take command of the town. Created by novelists Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler, the series was unapologetic about its over-the-top characters(*) and violence — nor did it really need to apologize, because the cast and crew were so good at their trades. Hood’s sidekick Job, a gender-queer hacker who could just as easily break your arm as destroy your credit rating, could have seemed utterly ridiculous in lesser hands; as played with abundant style and conviction by Hoon Lee, he was fabulous.
(*) The Cinemax brand was for the most part a very testosterone-laden one, though the spy thriller Hunted and the hard-boiled crime drama Jett were vehicles for, respectively, Melissa George and Carla Gugino. And the best of the other shows at least made sure to offer memorable female supporting characters: Both Banshee and Warrior gave their heroes female allies (played by Ivana Miličević in the former and Olivia Cheng in the latter) who could scrap as well as the guys could, while Eve Hewson and Juliet Rylance livened up The Knick as women struggling to carve out niches for themselves in an era where they didn’t even have the right to vote.
It was the kind of show that would not only have one of its villains conduct business out of a handsomely-furnished office built into the back of an 18-wheeler, but devote an episode to Hood having to kill people in, on, and around said 18-wheeler. Game of Thrones and the superhero shows on the CW and Netflix tended to get all the attention for their fight scenes, but the modestly-budgeted Banshee routinely put them to shame. Case in point:
It’s not the sort of material bound to get the acclaim of something like The Knick (which always felt like a bit of a Cinemax outlier, albeit a hypnotic one, thanks to Soderbergh’s amazing work behind the camera and Cliff Martinez’s pulsing electronic score), but Banshee knew what it was good at, and leaned hard into those strengths. And its creative team spread out elsewhere in the small but fiery Cinemax empire: Lead director Greg Yaitanes helmed all eight visually lush, dread-soaked episodes of the Vietnam-era crime show Quarry, while Tropper created Warrior, adapting an idea by martial arts legend Bruce Lee (one his family has long claimed was stolen by Warner Bros. to make the Seventies TV series Kung Fu).
It feels right, if frustrating, that Warrior will, at least for now, be the last Cinemax show, because it feels like a collection of the best elements of this era. It details the war between two rival tongs in post-Civil War San Francisco, offering the kind of historical sweep — particularly in its depiction of the overtly ugly state of race relations in America in those decades — and impressive period detail that The Knick deployed so well. In the friendship between Ah Sahm and tong heir apparent Young Jun, it recreates the buddy camaraderie that was so palpable in Strike Back and Quarry. Both Tropper and Hoon Lee (who here plays Wang Chao, a Chinatown businessman trying to stay neutral in the tong war) are among the Banshee holdovers, while Young Jun’s father is played by Perry Yung, who presided over Clive Owen’s favorite Knick opium den. The huge cast of Asian actors — mostly speaking in unaccented, colloquial English (a device the show uses whenever Chinese characters talk among themselves) — makes the series feel special not only among the Cinemax roster, but on television as a whole(*), given the difficulty Asian performers still have finding meaningful work decades after Lee was rejected from starring in Kung Fu in favor of white actor David Carradine.
(*) The series probably should have pared down its large roster of white characters — or, at least, used some of them only in relation to the Chinatown stories, rather than people whose stories we were meant to care about — since the material directly tied to Ah Sahm, Chao, and the other Chinese characters was almost always more exciting and fully-realized.
Oh, yeah, and it kicked enormous amounts of ass. Warrior offered the impeccable craftsmanship of Banshee or Strike Back on a scale so large, it at times even made The Knick look like a drawing-room mystery. (Here’s one of many fantastic Season One fights.)
The second season’s action highlights include an episode-length (the sixth) homage to Enter the Dragon, where Ah Sahm travels to the U.S.-Mexico border to pursue the prize in a fighting tournament; the inevitable showdown between Ah Sahm and hulking, bigoted Irish activist Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger); and Cheng’s vigilante madam Ah Toy putting her gleaming sword to very bloody use to get justice for her people. There are several set pieces featuring action of a scope few shows this side of Game of Thrones have ever attempted, let alone pulled off in such giddy fashion. The new episodes weren’t written as the end of the show, so there are seeds being laid in the last hours that will likely never bear fruit. But in style and theme, it feels like a good enough summation of the Warrior saga to make the two seasons a satisfying, fist-pumping package.
The HBO logo is famously accompanied by a burst of static when it appears before shows like The Sopranos and Watchmen, meant to evoke what it used to look and sound like to turn on a television set. Cinemax originals, in contrast, were introduced with the sound of an engine revving, because we were about to be taken on an exciting ride. When the Warrior finale airs in a couple of months, the car stops and gets put up on blocks, probably never to race again. Soderbergh has said that Moonlight director Barry Jenkins and Andre Holland are hoping to make a third season of The Knick, focusing on Holland’s character, Dr. Algernon Edwards; if it gets past the script stage, it would have to go to HBO and/or HBO Max. And who knows? Maybe when Warrior winds up on HBO Max, it proves so popular that Tropper is allowed to reassemble the team to give the story a more complete ending. Stranger things have happened in Peak TV — like the fact that so many fun series were allowed to toil and punch in relative obscurity for so many years.
In one upcoming Warrior episode, Ah Sahm and Ah Toy stare at a huge Chinatown mural commemorating a recent battle. Ah Sahm tries not to act impressed, arguing, “It’s paint on a wall. It’ll fade.” Ah Toy smiles and replies, “But it’s here now.” The rest of the Cinemax legacy has, for the moment, faded. But Warrior is here now. Enjoy it while it lasts.
The 10-episode final season of Warrior premieres October 2nd on Cinemax.