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Should You Watch … Cinemax’s ‘Warrior’?

Based on the writings of Bruce Lee, this late-19th-century Tong Wars martial arts series is full of campy action wherein every single actor seems to be having the time of their lives

Cinemax/Ringer illustration

One of the first additions to my personal DVD collection that I got to keep in my own room was a store-brand Bruce Lee anthology I harassed my dad into buying for me at a Walmart on a long drive to a youth soccer tournament. Or a baseball tournament. I don’t remember which sport, but I remember that each movie came in a slim case decorated with phoned-in artwork that might as well have only had the titles—The Big Boss, The Way of the Dragon, Fists of Fury, Enter the Dragon, Game of Death. I watched them scores of times, appreciating the hokey urgency of the martial arts movie genre: the out-of-phase dialogue, the no-guns moral imperative, and story line contortions that allow for interminable one-on-one battles between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, plus other details that would eventually grow to be too distracting.

Last week I tried to watch Enter the Dragon again. There are things about the movie that still sort of hold up 46 years later, despite the current scale of action movies, whose budgets have gotten, well, pretty big. Lee and John Saxon fighting off waves of Han’s men: still good. Jim Kelly’s stilted delivery of the “you come straight out of a comic strip” line: still good. The suspenseful fun-house showdown is also still good, despite the knockoff James Bond plot that led Lee and Han there in the first place. Still, you wonder what an updated version of that scene would look like, with better cameras, better choreography, and a bagh nakh that wasn’t so obviously made of plastic. Luckily, there’s Warrior, a new show on Cinemax set in the late 19th century and based on the writings of Bruce Lee, airing every Friday.

The short of it is, if you are the kind of person who would watch a show called Warrior, you will enjoy the hell out of Warrior. The show begins with our protagonist, Ah Sahm, played by Andrew Koji, stepping onto the docks at the Port of San Francisco circa 1875. You can tell he’s the protagonist by his casually swept hair and rugged five o’clock shadow, which are more distinct characteristics than any of the other immigrating Chinese get. And not only is Ah Sahm hot, he also has the mitts: Minutes into the premiere, he takes out three surly police officers with two punches and a kick. The blows land with a dull crunch, rather than the traditional whoopish sound.

The rest of the story is pretty old. Ah Sahm is hired as an enforcer and gets swept up in a war between the different Chinatown factions. There’s a woman he’s looking for, another that he has a forbidden love with, and a different one that will also be the death of him. Also: The villains are truly, wildly cartoonish. There’s a scene in which Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger, formerly known as Smalljon Umber, RIP), by all accounts the biggest bad Ah Sahm will eventually have to face, announces his bigotry to a bar full of Irishmen with a spirited they took our jobs speech. Of the many hateful white people on the show, he is the least ugly, and the most ruthless.

Warrior positively revels in martial arts and Western tropes. People talk fast, and in homespun truisms. (In one episode, there’s even a jump kill!) The show is basically Banshee—there’s a bar called “The Banshee”—set in a post–Transcontinental Railroad, post–Gold Rush world where the currency of character development is fistfights, and everyone pauses to appreciate their own one-liners. As an example: the oft-repeated phrase “you get me.” Characters use it for emphasis, as a warning, as an affirmation of character, of loyalty, of friendship, over and over again. It’s also incredibly jive-y, like something John Saxon or Jim Kelly might say in the actual ’70s. In Warrior, they say it over conference tables, in back alleys, and on the floors of brothels, just before any one of the three settings could become splattered with blood. I love the small idiosyncrasies—like how two grown men who only sort of know each other might refer to each other as “big brother” and “little brother.” I also love the larger ones, like how one character can sound totally different in three separate scenes.

One of the interesting things Warrior does is distrust the viewer’s ability to read subtitles. When Ah Sahm is first introduced to his would-be brothers, the conversation begins in Cantonese, and as it goes on, the camera shifts perspective to indicate that the characters are still speaking Cantonese, but in actuality are speaking perfect English. This makes it so that someone like Ah Sahm’s best friend Young Jun (Jason Tobin) can be speaking a language you don’t understand in the safety of his own territory, then sound like a frat boy to his contemporaries in the tong, and then speak in a caricatured Chinese accent to the white people in town.

Basically, Warrior is Peaky Blinders, but with more stylish melees, and a stronger acknowledgement of the racial tensions, and atrocities, that occurred at the time.

Should you watch it? I mean, it is a deliriously good time. There are no things I don’t love about it. I even love Bill, our miserly, misanthropic, casually racist cop. Excuse me, lieutenant. The show is slowly trying to redeem him—as if he was naturally good once, before the children and the Civil War and the alleged disenfranchisement of the Irish, and became racist against his will. I usually hate when a narrative assumes that history is a thing that just happens to people, but for some reason, I don’t really mind it.

Wait, so I should actually watch it? Yes! It’s a campy action series with a lot of punching and kicking wherein every single actor seems to be having the time of their lives.

What’s one episode I should watch, like, right off the bat? A cool quality about the pacing of the story is that there’s a little leeway with the passage of time between each episode. Between the fourth and fifth, Ah Sahm, in real time, has been on a handful of missions for the tong. This lays the groundwork for a road trip bottle episode, where Young Jun and Ah Sahm end up at a saloon in the middle of nowhere, besieged by a gang of murderous highwaymen. It’s both awesome and totally ridiculous. Imagine Gunsmoke, but it’s The Night Comes for Us. Run, don’t walk.