J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, April 05, 2019

Warrior: From the Pen and Sword of Bruce Lee


From 1849 through 1851, San Francisco was a real tinder box that almost burnt to the ground seven times. Building methods were somewhat safer by 1878, but rival tong gangs still might just incinerate the city with their open warfare. Frankly, the city’s various white political factions would be only too happy to let them, because it would serve their secret agendas. A newcomer named Ah Sahm will walk headlong into this dangerous environment. If that name sounds familiar than you probably really know your Bruce Lee. The iconic martial arts star’s concept for an American Asian action television series finally hits small screens over forty-five years after his death when the first season of Warrior premieres on Cinemax.

Lee pitched the network a show about the title character, a hard-fighting recent immigrant navigating San Francisco’s rough-and-tumble Chinatown neighborhood. They passed, but soon thereafter, they greenlit the white-washed Kung Fu series, starring David Carradine. It was not a great moment in American media, so it is rather satisfying to see it finally get corrected.

Ah Sahm is still one cool customer. He has come to San Francisco in search of his sister Mai Ling. Unfortunately, he will find her quite easily, because she is the lover of the leader of a rival tong outfit. Thanks to her influence, the two major factions are poised on the brink of a major gang war. Initially, Mai Ling wants nothing to do with Ah Sahm, but they will furtively come to each other’ aid, even though their respective tongs are mortal enemies.

As the freshly-minted and less-than-thrilled leader of the department’s new Chinatown squad, it is Sgt Bill O’Hara’s’ job to keep the peace. He is not doing it well, but in his defense, he is somewhat distracted by his compulsive gambling. However, there are a few progressive San Fransciscans who might even become allies of Ah Sahm at some point down the line, including O’Hara’s Savannah-born junior officer, Richard Henry Lee and Penny Blake, the wife of the city’s corrupt Mayor (is the any other kind?).

As you would dearly hope from a series based on a Bruce Lee concept, Warrior features some absolutely terrific fight scenes. Stunt coordinator-fight choreographer Brett Chan does some first-class work in each episode. At one point, director Lin Oeding teases us with the promise of a big street battle at the end of episode seven, but he duly delivers it at the start of episode eight. Regardless, fans should not be disappointed by the level of action Warrior delivers. Plus, the main theme composed by Reza Safinia and H. Scott Salinas is seriously funky, but its definitely a man’s world in 1870s Frisco and a male-focused show, even though Olivia Cheng has some moments as the resourceful, morally complex Madam, Ah Toy.

Most fans will also appreciate the performance of Andrew Koji as the English-speaking Ah Sahm. Although he never tries to slavishly channel Bruce Lee, he plays the tong fighter with similar levels of cockiness and brooding intensity. Jason Tobin nicely offsets him as the roguishly hedonistic and recklessly energetic Young Jun, the heir apparent to Ah Sahm’s tong. Kieran Bew and Tom Weston-Jones (from Copper) play off each other well as the mutually distrustful O’Hara and Lee. Frankly, Joe Taslim (of The Raid) is mostly under-employed as Mai Ling’s lover and champion, but his promised big showdown with Ah Sahm has us looking forward to episode nine (one through eight were provided to media).

Indeed, the combination of original Bruce Lee material (an eight-page treatment and some sketches) combined with the presence of executive producers Shannon Lee (Lee’s daughter) and Justin Lin (from the Fast and Furious franchise and Finishing the Game) and Taslim from The Raid should have many fans giddy with anticipation. So far, it definitely delivers some strong fight scenes and plenty of hip attitude. Recommended for martial arts fans and connoisseurs of meathead TV shows, Warrior premieres tonight (4/5) on Cinemax.

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