Review by C.J. Bunce
About once per decade a series makes its way to our television sets that has it all. You can find that in Warrior, the Cinemax/Max series based on the writings of Bruce Lee, produced by his daughter Shannon, and brought to the screen by Jonathan Tropper. It mixes martial arts action with historical costume drama to deliver a unique window into the mind of an American legend, and an era of struggle for immigrants in 19th century American history. The first two seasons set the scene and delivered two jaw-dropping, knockout punches. A look at history, at San Francisco and its famous Chinatown during the Tong Wars, with detailed worldbuilding in a way audiences have never seen before. Andrew Koji (Snake Eyes, Bullet Train), at times a ringer for Bruce Lee in style and manner, stars as Ah Sahm, a young man coming from China to find and rescue his sister, who was taken away to America in part because of his actions. When he arrives in America he finds himself in a battle for survival, forced to join one of the many opposing gangs. But soon those gangs learn he has survival skills, brains, and instincts superior to many around him. He finds his sister only to discover her stars have changed and she is about to take over a rival gang.
As Ah Sahm forges bonds with the madame at a Chinatown bordello and a local wheeler and dealer of weapons, he saves the wife of the city’s mayor, and soon the pair get involved as mayoral politics come crashing down around them. A Confederate on the run from Georgia–named Lee–joins the local police squad trying to keep the peace as Irish immigrants and Chinese immigrants clash over jobs. A clash of culture is ready to explode in Chinatown. Oh, yeah–and the series co-stars Joe Taslim (The Night Comes for Us, The Raid: Redemption, Star Trek Beyond, Fast & Furious 6) one of the biggest martial arts actors in the world, and some of the most badass women we’ve yet seen on TV.
But that’s just the first two seasons. The complete third season is now streaming today on Max. So, does Warrior keep up the momentum through its third season?
Two constants on this series: excitement and stakes. Key to the success of a third season in a show like this is upping the stakes for each character. The second season cut the story short for two major characters, but the choices made sense, and left the main protagonists and antagonists (who often shifted throughout the series) in place. The greatest showcase of skill and power came in Season 3 for Ah Sahm, and actor Andrew Koji, as he became a hero to Chinatown. His sister, Mai Ling, played by Dianne Doan (Vikings, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), is running Chinatown for the most part, but as she rests on her laurels–and flat-out gets cocky–finally something bigger comes along to remind her how and why she got her position. This opens up something martial arts fans have been waiting for: more for Joe Taslim to do as her husband Li Yong. Some of the series’ best dramatic work was held back for Taslim this year as he must choose between his new wife and an old friend.
That friend was a fun surprise: actor and martial artist, and former Food Network star, the Iron Chef chairman himself, Mark Dacascos as another manipulator, Kong Pak. Sad Sack cop Bill O’Hara (Kieran Bew) and Dean Jagger’s Dylan Leary returned to more of their often deer-in-the-headlights angst and bad decisions, while Tom Weston-Jones’ Richard Lee finally confronts his past just as a federal officer seeks his help while he’s stuck propping himself up with painkillers.
But the biggest twists and turns, and best arc, go to Wang Chao as the master facilitator for all factions and jack of all trades, played by Hoon Lee (Bosch, Mulan, Iron Fist, White Collar). At every point he was the puppetmaster behind every act of revenge, but getting dragged off to Georgia with Lee showed how much of a survivor this guy could be. Not to be left in the shadows is Jenny Umbhau as Lai, who along with Olivia Cheng’s Ah Toy, ranks among the best kickass women in TV history. Her rise as the mute former slave provided some solid emotion for Toy, and built up the electricity leading into the season finale. Genre fans may not know that Umbhau is better known behind the scenes as a stuntwoman who has doubled for Jenna Ortega in Wednesday and Billie in Resident Evil. Cheng (Psych, Supernatural, Eureka, Arrow) saw her sword-wielding character Ah Toy take more of a backseat to the action this year–the writers were holding her back for her return as Chinatown’s “warrior” in the season finale, to confront the loathsome robber baron Douglas Strickland, played by Adam Rayner, who destroyed her lover’s rural sanctuary town. Now if only Langley Kirkwood’s vile Mayor Buckley would get his due.
Supporting performers dazzled throughout the series. Chen Tang (Mulan, Bosch, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) played Hong, the third wheel for Ah Sahm and Young Jun, who added the perfect laugh during moments of tension and saved their skins more than once. Chelsea Muirhead (Spare Parts) was another good addition as Yan Mi, Ah Sahm’s new love interest. I’d hoped for a return of Maria Elena-Lass (American Weapon), who played Rosalita Vega, who worked Ah Sahm and Young Jun into her own scheme in season two, but it didn’t happen.
What makes Warrior unique, and worthy of consideration for not only the best series of the year, but maybe the decade? Beyond the obvious–a fun action series sourced in the writings of Bruce Lee with all that comes with the legend’s name and smartly connects history with lessons for today–let’s highlight its exquisite use of language itself. For genre fans, everyone remembers how we saw Sean Connery shift from speaking Russian in The Hunt for Red October to English for English-speaking audiences. But that was a simple transition. In Warrior, when Chinese speakers interact, their dialogue is either in Cantonese or standard English. When Chinese speakers speak English to English-speaking characters, they shift to heavily-accented, broken English. The conceit works instantly and continues to work through the third season. Some of the most fun this season is watching Ah Sahm’s friend, and new boss, Young Jun, played by Jason Tobin, as he reacts to Ah Sahm’s mastery of English when they make a deal laundering money in a new town, meeting a dangerous gang led by a German immigrant. Young Jun gets pushed and pulled a lot this season, and Tobin is expert at looking either like the smartest guy in the room, or a big dope, when warranted. And the language–Chinese, English, and variations on both–add a new layer to storytelling opportunities.
This was a Cinemax, now Max, series, so yes, get ready for the network’s obligatory, drawn-out sex scenes in practically every episode. It doesn’t add anything, and you have to sympathize with the nude actors having to fake sex in front of 50 film crew, but at least it’s tasteful and not as gratuitous as its HBO counterparts.
But Warrior really has no counterpart, and Bruce Lee, if he’s watching from afar, must be pretty proud of his daughter’s achievement, a series that society would not allow him to reveal in his own time. Keep an eye out for how the writers incorporate the scripts into the titles. It’s kind of like watching Psych to find the pineapple in each episode, which is just the kind of additional element that makes for great genre TV. The only thing missing is the 1980s song by Scandal for the finale’s end credits.
Don’t miss all three seasons of Warrior streaming now on Max. It might be the best show ever set in San Francisco. Its finale episode was as good as it gets. It’s the series to catch up on for 2023, as viewers await a renewal for a fourth season.