Review: Warrior 1×1 (US: Cinemax; UK: Sky1)

Period Asian Banshee

Warrior

In the US: Fridays, Cinemax
In the UK: Acquired by Sky1 to star in June

Despite his short life, Bruce Lee to this date remains the world’s most famous martial artist. While he was alive, there was many an imitator and even after this death, there were many who tried to piggyback on his fame or who claimed to be “the next Bruce Lee”. Small wonder then that the producers of Cinemax’s Warrior would wish to do the same by saying their show is “based on the writings of Bruce Lee” – even though it’s basically “Period Asian Banshee from the producers of Banshee“.

All about Bruce Lee
Joe Taslim and Andrew Koji in Cinemax's Warrior
Joe Taslim and Andrew Koji in Cinemax’s Warrior

Warrior

To be fair, Lee’s daughter Shannon is one of Warrior‘s producers and she did indeed have an eight-page treatment by Lee for a western TV series in which he would have starred. However, given that it was a treatment for ‘The Warrior‘, which (probably) ultimately metamorphosed into Kung Fu, I imagine there might have been a few copyright issues involved in a straight adaptation of that treatment.

So instead, Banshee‘s Jonathan Tropper fleshed Lee’s original ideas with his own characters and situations. In so doing, he’s basically recreated Banshee again, just in a different time and place.

Warrior sees 19th century martial arts prodigy Andrew Koji (The Wrong Mans, The Innocents) coming over to San Francisco from China. As in Banshee, our hero is looking for a woman from his past; as in Banshee, he’s a gifted fighter; as in Banshee, his skills mean he’s soon found by a local (Banshee‘s Hoon Lee) who helps put into a position of power; as in Banshee, that soon puts him into conflict with criminal elements in the city; as in Banshee, he doesn’t care about local rules and soon begins to shake up the status quo.

Hoon Lee and Olivia Cheng in Cinemax's Warrior
Hoon Lee and Olivia Cheng in Cinemax’s Warrior

Smarter than Skin-e-max

There are differences, of course, between Banshee and Warrior, and not just in the locale and the period. But mostly the two shows fit into the same template. We have the simmering ethnic tensions, here between the Chinese, the Irish and the rest of the Americans. There’s copious violence, bone crunching and nudity. Women tend to fall into our hero’s bed in an instant. There’s naturally a bad guy who’s just as good as our hero at fighting (The Raid‘s Joe Taslim), if not better. And when he does meet the woman he’s come for, it turns out that she already has a life and husband of her own that she doesn’t want to give up for him.

Yet all this reduction-to-template I’m doing overlooks both shows’ great strengths. Banshee was one of the few series to have a highly diverse cast and to address issues of diversity in a blue-collar setting. It was perfectly happy to debate raw Native American concerns, African-American concerns and more, without ignoring the US’s history in these areas. It was always a lot smarter than its bone-crunching,’ Skin-e-max’ plotlines would suggest.

Similarly, Warrior has cast its casting net widely, bringing in actors from around the world, including Brits (Koji, Jason Tobin, Kieran Bew, Joanna Vanderham, Tom Weston-Jones, Langley Kirkwood, Christian McKay), Canadians (Olivia Cheng, Dianne Doan) and Indonesians (Joe Taslim), as well as US native ethnic actors (Dustin Nguyen and Hoon Lee).

Warrior actually doesn’t have that much fighting in it, although when it does, it’s proper kung fu and wing chun. Instead, most of the storyline is dedicated to exploring the history, culture and attitudes of San Francisco just a couple of decades after the Civil War. We have the Irish ready to cook up another Civil War because they feel they’re being supplanted by a new group of immigrants (the Chinese). You have an exploration of why so many Chinese are coming to the US to work. You get to see the tensions that still exist between the North and the South. There are also class concerns and the majority of characters are blue collar. And while there aren’t many black characters, it’s still clear that even in the supposedly free North, many are still treated like slaves.

When it comes to languages, the show smartly copies both Vikings and The Hunt For Red October. Everyone speaks Chinese to one another at first, before one whirling camera shot switches dialogue over to English mid-sentence. After that, everyone appears to speak English to one another until someone who can’t speak Chinese turns up, at which point they switch to Chinese and it’s revealed that they’ve been conversing in another language the whole time.

This isn’t period English, of course. Warrior makes the dialogue entirely modern and 18-rated, giving it a rawness and relevance that period dramas can often lack.

Olivia Cheng, Jason Tobin and Andrew Koji in Cinemax's Warrior
Olivia Cheng, Jason Tobin and Andrew Koji in Cinemax’s Warrior

Fighting fit

Warrior isn’t exactly flawless. As with Banshee, the female characters aren’t treated well and they’re usually there just to get naked. The music is so keen to suggest the show is a western, it often forgets to be exciting. The show’s quest for authenticity means lighting is often so poor, you can’t see what’s going on.

So far, there have been no surprises in plotting when it comes to the protagonist and his quest. Everyone did pretty much everything you expected. Where there are surprises, it’s with the Irish and the cops, where everything is far more sophisticated than you might expect.

But episode one is pretty good. The martial arts are far more authentic and better executed than the similarly pitched Into The Badlands‘ and if you’ve ever watched a Bruce Lee movie, you’ll get a real sense of deja vu watching Koji in action. I also liked the occasional head-nod to Kung Fu, such as with the branding of Koji.

There are enough good things about Warrior, even if from a historical rather than a dramatic perspective, that I’m going to stick with it. Hopefully, it’ll turn out to be as surprising as Banshee was.

Bruce Lee’s treatment for ‘The Warrior’
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