Among the more fascinating legends in the short but memorable life of Bruce Lee is the TV show the martial-arts icon pitched in the early Seventies about a Chinese immigrant traveling through America in the late 19th century. The studio politely declined, the Lee family story goes, then stole key elements of the pitch to make Kung Fu, a Western-meets-Eastern where the immigrant was played by the Caucasian actor David Carradine.
On April 5th, the legend becomes fact in an unexpected, wonderful way with Warrior, a new Cinemax drama inspired by Lee’s notes for that unsold/stolen pitch, executive produced by Justin Lin and Lee’s daughter Shannon. A lush action drama, set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1878, Warrior feels like someone asked, “What if The Knick, but with hatchet fights?”
Our Lee-esque hero is Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), just off the boat in search of his estranged sister. Faced immediately with the intense anti-immigrant prejudice of the time, he displays his martial-arts skill in a way that lands him in the employ of one of the local Tongs, run by the dandyish Father Jun (Perry Yung). Before he’s had a chance to begin his quest, he’s decked out in a slick suit, partnered with heir apparent Young Jun (Jason Tobin) and asked to battle a rival crew that’s cutting in on Father Jun’s opium trade.
As envisioned by creator Jonathan Tropper (Banshee), the city’s many legal and illegal businesses are all interconnected, so in time Ah Sahm tangles not only with the other Tong and its frontwoman Mai Ling (Dianne Doan), but local madam (and part-time vigilante) Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng), unallied fixer Wang Chao (Hoon Lee), reluctant Chinatown cop Bill O’Hara (Kieran Bew), racist Irish strongman Dylan Leary (Dean S. Jagger) and even Penny Blake (Joanna Vanderham), wife to the city’s very corrupt, very kinky mayor (Christian McKay).
It’s a sprawling cast of characters, many of them played by actors of Asian descent who have rarely had the opportunity to take on roles like this. Tropper deploys the Hunt for Red October trick of having the Chinese characters speak perfect, unaccented English whenever white people (or, as the Chinese call them, “ducks”) aren’t around. (When the two groups mix, the Chinese characters’ dialogue is subtitled, though a few of them speak English with varying degrees of skill.) On the one hand, it’s a device to make it easier on the audience of a fundamentally very pulpy, unpretentious action show. On the other, it’s a striking way to normalize people who are in a setting where they’re demonized and othered. The names and faces are different, but none of these characters would be out of place in a crime drama filled with white actors(*). (Change the setting and the ethnicities and, for instance, Walton Goggins might once have been able to play a Young Jun type with the same cocky yet endearing energy that Jason Tobin brings to the role now.)
(*) The bushy period mustaches that many of the Irish and WASP characters wear obscure their mouths enough to occasionally create the illusion that they’re the ones speaking a foreign language and having their dialogue dubbed into English for the local marketplace. Whether intentional or not, it’s a nifty role reversal.
“These are strange fucking times,” Father Jun suggests. “The ducks think we’re less than human. We can’t own, we can’t vote, and yet somehow, we’re responsible for the economic woes of their entire nation.”
Speeches like that draw a painful line between the show’s period setting and our own. But even though Warrior never loses sight of the many sociopolitical reflections of today, its primarily goal is to kick ass and take names, which it does splendidly throughout.
Even though its run overlapped with Game of Thrones and a few dozen different comic-book dramas, Banshee consistently had the best-choreographed, most viscerally exciting fight scenes on television. (Case in point: the long, nasty one embedded above.) Having Lee’s name attached raises the bar even higher, but the work that stunt coordinator Brett Chan does with Koji and the other actors (particularly Joe Taslim as the rival Tong’s top enforcer, Li Yong) more than clears it. The show’s directors (including Assaf Bernstein and Loni Peristere) favor longer takes and clean compositions to make it clear just how much skill is on display, whether Ah Sahm and Li Yong are waged in gladiatorial combat, or two Tongs are engaged in a massive hatchet brawl in an alley.
Midway through the season, Ah Sahm and Young Jun are sent out of town for an episode that finds them battling stagecoach rustlers inside a Wild West saloon. It’s a delight, and the closest Warrior comes to stepping directly into the territory of Kung Fu. But even if Lee had been able to sell his own script back then, television in the Seventies wasn’t equipped to recreate the past and stage epic martial-arts battles on the scale that Warrior does throughout. This is the right time and place for Lee’s vision to come to thrilling life, even if he’s not around to star in it. Warrior is a blast.
The series debuts April 5th on Cinemax. I’ve seen all 10 episodes of the first season.