The marketing campaign for Cinemax’s period action epic Warrior could be summed up as, “Watch it. It’s what Bruce Lee would have wanted.” The credits say it’s “based on the writings” of Lee, the martial-arts superstar who died of a cerebral edema at 33. Supposedly he’d shopped around an eight-page treatment for a show called Ah Sahm, about a Chinese kung fu master wandering the Old West, only to see it stolen and recycled as Kung Fu, which starred a white man, David Carradine, and ran for three seasons on ABC.
Short of communing with Lee through a medium, it’s impossible to say if Warrior is precisely what he had in mind, but its creative and cultural bona fides are undeniable. The executive producers include Jonathan Tropper, who co-created Cinemax’s raucous, deeply weird Banshee; director Justin Lin, who helmed three movies in the Fast and the Furious franchise; and martial artist and actress Shannon Lee, daughter of Bruce. From the start of the show, which premieres Friday night, it establishes that while it isn’t above mandatory Cinemax elements like fights, macho banter, and visits to brothels, it also aspires to make statements about the immigrant experience. And damned if those statements don’t turn out to be more arresting than the genre elements, which are proficiently handled but far from unique.
The main story line is a pulpy crime melodrama set in San Francisco circa 1875, about a Chinese immigrant, Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), who comes to America to find his estranged sister Mai Ling (Dianne Doan) and becomes an enforcer for a crime boss during a tong war. But from the pilot’s opening sequence — which sees Ah Sahm walk off a boat into a burst of white light (as if born, or reborn), then trounce three abusive, Irish-accented immigration enforcers — Warrior establishes that it’s specifically about the idea of Americanness, and who’s allowed to claim it.
The storytelling is pitched at the level of a hard-boiled graphic novel, using the framework of a 19th-century Chinese-American tale to freshen up the usual crime-thriller types. These include the superhuman man of few words (the Bruce Lee part, filled by Koji with more than a few Lee-like gestures); the glowering, one-eyed gang boss (Perry Yung), who puts up with the new guy’s bad attitude because he’s so great at kicking ass; the boss’s spoiled, psychotic son (Jason Tobin of Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow); the elegant madam who has many secrets (Olivia Cheng), and so on. The borderline Guys and Dolls artificiality of the sets, which were built on South African soundstages, makes it seem as if the characters are constantly on the verge of bursting into song — or at least a line dance with axes, à la Kung Fu Hustle. Alas, they never do.
But the cleanly choreographed fight scenes are a fine substitute — and those are never more endearing than in the aftermath, when characters make stylized gestures that reveal their personalities. (Post-robbery, a victorious gang member sticks three cigarettes in his mouth, lights them by leaning into a burning carriage, keeps one for himself, and gives the others away.) Warrior ratchets up the bad-osity as it goes, hitting its stride four episodes in as a black comedy with fights, historical-political factoids, and soft-core sex scenes. The latter mostly feel obligatory, although the show does manage a few amusing, non-heteronormative sight gags (the sleazebag mayor, played by Orson Welles sound-alike Christian McKay, shows up for what we assume is a one-on-one tryst with a hired woman, at which point a man steps into frame beside her); and every now and then we get a shot that’s erotic not merely because there’s sex or nudity in it, but because the image is sensuously composed. (The best of these is a post-tryst moment: We get an extended backside view of a man putting his clothes on while in the foreground, a naked woman’s out-of-focus arm, torso, and hip create a bracketing effect.)
The show is more assured when its star is dealing out punishment with his fists and feet, and when it’s turning into the sort of meditation on national identity you rarely see in this context. Warrior is a patchwork of grubby-historical epics (including Deadwood and Gangs of New York) that depict the Chinese, the naturalized Irish, and the established WASP power brokers as representing three levels of respectability. The Chinese, being nonwhite and newly arrived, have resolved to chase the so-called American dream via sex trafficking, racketeering, smuggling, and other illegal routes, because the legal ones are closed to them.
The Irish occupy a tenuous middle ground. They’ve completely overtaken the police department and appear to be mostly corrupt. As represented by characters like Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger), a sneering labor agitator with a rocklike face, they have a white supremacist or nativist mentality, similar to Bill the Butcher in Gangs. They proclaim themselves more truly American than the “subhuman” (i.e. nonwhite) races they fear are going to replace the Irish and whites in general.
Yet at the same time, they bear deep grievances toward the rulers — many of whom are descended from the same folks who abused the Irish on the other side of the Atlantic — and they’re still mad about being conscripted into the U.S. Civil War and forced to kill Irish on the Confederate side, none of whom, in their minds, had a dog in that particular hunt. “We freed the fucking slaves,” Leary growls, “God bless ’em, but they didn’t go back to Africa. They came up North and took our fuckin’ jobs.” All the authorities in this city are white, and the police department — which just started patrolling Chinatown in response to racial violence — is a hotbed of vocal white supremacy. The only cop with a conscience is a Civil War veteran from Savannah, Georgia, named Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones, veteran of another grimy TV period piece, Copper), who performs on-the-spot autopsies at crime scenes by rummaging in victims’ wounds, then scrawling observations in a bloodstained notebook.
The notion of whiteness as a provisional condition is rarely addressed on American TV, and it’s fascinating to see it placed front and center on a show where characters kick each other through walls. One of the earliest series to dissect the concept of whiteness was The Sopranos, whose Italian-American gangsters demanded sympathy for being stereotyped and ostracized even as they exploited their own people and looked down on other races. The tensions between the Irish and the Chinese, and between the notion of Americanness as something that’s earned versus something that’s bestowed by skin color, are more engrossing than most of Warrior’s tong-on-tong mayhem, because the material is fresher and the stakes are larger.