Warrior (Bruce Lee Cinemax TV Show) Season 1: A Review and Retrospective Analysis
Including an analysis of Bruce Lee's portrayal in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood". Guest post contributed by Patrick Nguyen, edited by the Dynasty Team.
Bruce Lee: Back from the Dead
On April 5, 2019, the first season of Warrior aired via Cinemax. The show is a violent and gritty 19th-century crime drama based in San Francisco’s Chinatown after the American Civil War and follows the exploits of a young man named Ah Sahm. The history of the show’s concept dates back to a few notes that Bruce Lee drummed up during his time in Hollywood. He pitched the idea of Warrior to execs at Warner Bros and Paramount in 1971 of a spaghetti-western/kung fu drama The Warrior that revolved around a martial artist.
Typical with Hollywood standard procedure at the time, they rejected him outright. The following year, a new TV series was released dubbed Kung Fu, which was originally conceived as a movie. The show had the same premise as The Warrior, detailing the exploits of a lone martial artist as he journeyed through the Old West.
Not only was the concept for Bruce Lee's show stolen, but they also added insult to injury by putting David Carradine in as the lead for the series instead of Bruce Lee, effectively white-washing his role. Perhaps one of the reasons was they feared Asian American actors couldn’t bring in the viewers or money into Hollywood. Either way, this perpetuated the controversial practice of yellowface and erasure of Asians from the storytelling diaspora within American media.
Fast forward to 2015, more than forty years after his death, Bruce’s daughter Shannon Lee uncovers a batch of notes written by her father. She partners up with Justin Lin (True Detective, Better Luck Tomorrow) of Perfect Storm Entertainment, who is an admirer of the Jeet Kune Do founder/movie star and dreamed of doing a project that featured an Asian cast. Eventually, they would cross paths with Jonathan Tropper (executive producer of Banshee) and together they would pitch the idea of the show to him.
In one of the show interviews, Jonathan Tropper admitted to being a huge Bruce Lee fan and a former martial artist himself, and when the project came across his way he grew more interested in bringing the show to fruition. After years of collaboration, along with finding the appropriate cast members to fill in their respective roles, production was completed and Bruce Lee’s dream would finally come to life.
The Players – Who’s Who in Warrior
British-Japanese actor Andrew Koji portrays Ah Sahm, who captures Sifu Lee’s likeness and mannerisms brilliantly. His character is a martial arts prodigy that is confident and cocky at the same time. We immediately see Ah Sahm at the beginning of the series as the kind of man who is street-smart, can think on his feet when the chips are down, and isn’t afraid of getting in fights because he possesses kick-ass Kung Fu martial arts skills.
Supporting cast members include Jason Tobin, Joe Taslim, Kieran Bew, Dianne Doan, and Joanna Vanderham. Bew plays as Officer “Big Bill” O’Hara, Vanderham a low-tier policeman that is promoted to Sergeant and placed in charge of the Chinatown squad. His team is tasked to maintain a semblance of law and order and makes his prejudices against the Chinese known very early in the series. Jason Tobin plays Young Jun, the son of Father Jun (portrayed by Perry Yung) who is effectively the second-in-command of Chinatown’s most powerful Tong and quickly becomes friends with Ah Sahm. Joe Taslim plays as an enforcer for the rival Long Zii Tong named Li Yong. Dianne Doan is Mai Ling/Xiaojing, the wife of Long Zii, a rival Tong leader. Joanna Vanderham plays Ah Sahm’s love interest Penelope “Penny” Blake, the wife of San Francisco Mayor Samuel Blake.
Finally, the cast is rounded out with the talents of Dean Jagger as Irish gang leader Dylan Leary, Olivia Cheng as brothel mistress Ah Toy, Tom Weston Jones as Officer Richard Lee, Langley Kirkwood as Deputy Mayor Walter Buckley, and Christian McKay as Mayor Blake.
It’s Not Just Fists, Blood and Gore
The show reflects the racism and violence against Asian Americans in the 19th century. You can think of it as Gangs of New York with Asian people, where conflict is prevalent between the local San Francisco government, the Irish gangs and the Chinese Tongs that rule the streets. The language, fighting, sex, and dismembered body parts are not for the faint of heart.
In the midst of the lack of mainstream Asian media presence in America, the show is a breath of fresh air. Warrior adds depth to all its characters, especially the Asian ones that are carving out spaces for themselves in the chaos of San Francisco. The racism within the show is as real as it gets, which serves as a form of exploration of racial dynamics in relation to the show’s period. This grim reality persists within American society today and maybe more relevant than ever with growing tensions between America and China.
Warrior’s strengths lie not only within the action throughout all of the episodes, but the realistic character interactions and extreme levels of attention to detail, from period-specific clothing and styles. The filming of the series in South Africa captured the likeness of the American West and San Francisco’s Chinatown replicated down to the finest detail. Cantonese is spoken within the show but has a clever way of including the audience into the dialogue of the Chinese characters by switching to English as the camera zooms specifically to them.
The Art of Fighting
Brett Chan is credited as the stunt coordinator for the show, giving direction that brought the show’s visceral fight scenes to life. Much of the fighting is heavily grounded, with no wire work involved. It follows Bruce Lee’s philosophy of keeping the fight as real as possible. The fact that Joe Taslim was included in the show adds to its realism as some of the key characters within the show engage in brutal close-quarters combat. Chinese martial arts, western boxing and gunplay are on full display here.
In particular, Wing Chun and Jeet Kune Do are demonstrated throughout the season (the former, while popularized in more recent years by Donnie Yen in the Ip Man movie series, was originally made famous by Bruce Lee himself when he brought it over to America).
There are no shaky cameras like the Matt Damon led Bourne movies, and the fight scenes are shot through single takes. The fact that the series takes place in the 1870s takes modern weapons as we know it out of the picture, opening up opportunities for close contact fighting that exudes raw power no matter which fight scenes play out.
Our Personal Favourite Episode
Dynasty's personal favourite was the Quentin Tarantino / The Hateful Eight-inspired Episode 5, "The Blood and the Shit", for a variety of reasons.
The episode played out like a stand-alone film where two of our main characters (Sahm and Jun) rode into the Old Wild Wild West like vigilantes in a classic Western cowboy flick.
Not only were our characters free to roam anywhere (like an open-world video game), they were able to explore themselves and their Western period surroundings devoid of the trappings of earlier or future story lines in the show itself, yet still building onto their own characters in the process.
There are too many gems and gratifying moments in this episode to list out, but not only did we get to see a glimpse of what life would have been like for a Chinese migrant worker in the Old West, a gloriously funny "haha" moment where Ah Sahm reveals his superpower in that he speaks English, we also got a glorifying treatment of our main characters where they were the cowboy heroes of the story in a Western, instead of just the backdrop.
A little bit of sadness hits you when the episode was over, as this was the only episode where our characters were allowed to roam free outside of Chinatown, San Francisco. We knew after this episode that they would return to Chinatown, and in a sense, return back to reality from this fantasy Western setting, which is arguably the most fun the show has had so far.
Speaking of Quentin Tarantino and Bruce Lee however... reminds us of the struggle Bruce had to endure when he was still alive, and even posthumously as well.
A Legacy of Erasure, Denial, and Misinformation
Hollywood, like much of the rest of America, openly “espouses” diversity to the public while predominantly having Caucasian Americans as leads in most if not all of the blockbusters that are released from good ‘ol Tinseltown.
Quentin Tarantino recently released another film this year called “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood”, a fictional biopic film revolving around the Manson murders and Sharon Tate, who was also a co-star of Bruce Lee at one point where Bruce had taught her Kung Fu.
In one segment of the film, a lengthy "fantasy/dream" sequence showed a cocky Bruce Lee (portrayed by actor Mike Moh) being beaten up and thrown into a car by the fictitious Caucasian male protagonist Cliff Booth (portrayed by Brad Pitt).
Whether the scene was a "dream sequence" or not does not matter, because the damage has already been done by filming and presenting such a scene to begin with.
By turning an icon such as Bruce Lee into a joke (which is not only ridiculous because no one could ever fathom turning a racial icon such as Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali into a joke - yet with Asians, anything goes) but harmfully erases the accomplishments and hardships that he had to endure while he was alive during his time as an Asian man in Hollywood / America (which had barred him from obtaining big roles due to racism).
Because Hollywood movies are widely watched everywhere in the world, Quentin Tarantino's choice to paint Bruce Lee as a short, skinny Chinese man who makes monkey screeching noises, only to be beaten up by a fictional "Vietnam war hero" Caucasian character, sends the perhaps not-so-subtle message that once again, a White Man has reigned supreme over the Asian man (like when Carradine, a relative nobody, got cast in Kung Fu over the real Lee when he was still alive).
Bruce Lee's story, his Asian-American triumph over racism in Hollywood / America, and legacy as a martial arts icon and philosopher is reduced to a joke to the current and future generations who have no idea who Bruce Lee truly was.
Friends and family members including Shannon Lee, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Dan Inosanto have spoken out at length against Quentin Tarantino’s blatant disrespect of the late martial artist, philosopher, and martial arts icon.
Shannon Lee: "It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father." Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, says it was “disheartening” to see Quentin Tarantino depict her father in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” as “an arrogant a–hole who was full of hot air.”
The NBA great and Hollywood Reporter columnist, a friend of the late martial arts star, believes the filmmaker was sloppy, somewhat racist and shirked his responsibility to basic truth in 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.'
“Bruce Lee would have never said anything derogatory about Muhammad Ali because he worshiped the ground Muhammad Ali walked on. In fact, he was into boxing more so than martial arts,” says Inosanto, one of only three martial artists who were trained by Lee to teach Jeet Kune Do at Lee’s martial arts institutes. Jeet Kune Do is a philosophy of martial arts drawing from different disciplines invented by Lee that is often credited with paving the way for modern mixed martial arts (MMA).
In the midst of all this, Warrior explores a facet of American history that is hardly discussed, specifically the politics that revolved around the presence of the Chinese population, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and other factors that shaped Asian America to what it is today. It is an exploration of the authentic Chinese experience, in much of the same fashion when Bruce Lee's movies premiered.
What the Future Holds
In closing, this show is highly recommended for those who are into martial arts as well as drama. Even more so than just martial arts and drama, however, the show presents a previously untold history, the underlying political issues that the time period brings, and a glimpse into the life of newly immigrated Chinese Americans.
Warrior takes a deep dive into each of the characters and their interactions in much the same fashion as The Wire before it. Even in death, Bruce Lee lives on through his widow, his daughter, and the martial arts world.
After three episodes, the series was renewed for a second season. Season 2 began production this year and the cliffhanger from the last episode will make you want to continue watching the adventures of Ah Sahm and his Tong.
We're glad there's a show that finally (and unapologetically) sheds light on the Chinese / Asian experience, promotes actors of Asian descent into starring roles, and positively portrays Asians in America, and by proxy, the world.
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- Dynasty Team