In 'Warrior,' Bruce Lee's Revolutionary Martial Arts Comes to America

Jeet Kune Do, often considered the forerunner to mixed martial arts, is almost its own character in Cinemax' newest action series 'Warrior.'

In the new Cinemax action drama Warrior, a Chinese immigrant named Ah Sahm (played by Andrew Koji) comes to 1880s San Francisco hoping to find his sister. But his journey exploring the New World will fundamentally change him as a warrior. As the show’s producers tell Inverse, Ah Sahm’s evolution will mirror that of film legend and series creator Bruce Lee, a kung fu master and pop culture icon who became the grandfather of mixed martial arts.

But in a change from most martial arts shows — and a subversion of Asian stereotyping — not everyone in Chinatown is a martial artist. The hatchetmen of the Tong Wars, a real period in San Francisco’s history marked by Chinese gang violence, are not all kung fu experts.

“They’re brawlers,” says co-producer Jonathan Tropper. “We’re not going to have in every episode kung fu versus kung fu. That’s once or twice a season.”

Warrior, based on Bruce Lee’s unproduced TV pitch from the 1970s, is co-produced by Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) and Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee. In homage to Lee, who would have played Ah Sahm on TV over four decades ago, Ah Sahm knows Wing Chun, a specific discipline made famous by real-life practitioner, Grandmaster Ip Man.

But over the course of the first season’s ten episodes, Sham will strip away the rigidity of his kung fu and begin using the more efficient Jeet Kune Do — a Lee invention — allowing him to survive the mean, unpredictable streets of Chinatown.

“[Ah Sahm] is not coming in as a Jeet Kune Do master, he’s coming in as a Wing Chun master,” says Tropper. “That’s his journey: Becoming more efficient, stripping away the unnecessary stuff.”

He adds that Ah Sahm’s fighting style will becomes less “flowery” over time. “In the first episode you see him doing a bagua form. You’ll never see him do that again. Because Bruce Lee would have no use for that.”

Tropper isn’t just a fan of martial arts. He’s a veteran himself, having practiced for 25 years. His first TV production, Cinemax’s Banshee, was hailed for its highly-intricate fight choreography. Like many martial artists, Tropper was also an admirer of Bruce Lee, which helped him communicate with the show’s fight choreographer Brett Chan.

“He’s not used to a writer that has this much geeky martial arts knowledge,” Tropper says, though he also concedes Chan’s knowledge is deeper than his own.

Warrior Cinemax Bruce Lee
Andrew Koji stars as "Ah Sahm" in Cinemax's 'Warrior.'

Before Bruce Lee immigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. in 1959, he was a Wing Chun master and experienced boxer. He was also a delinquent who got into seriously rough street fights, which prompted his parents to move him to the U.S. at age 18.

After a few years in America, Lee combined his education in philosophy and psychology at the University of Washington with his martial arts to formulate Jeet Kune Do. In Cantonese, it means the “way of the intercepting fist.”

Unlike kung fu, Jeet Kune Do( or JKD) is a freewheeling style that ditches predetermined movement and encourages acting upon instinct instead. JKD infuses kung fu with techniques from boxing, wrestling, taekwondo, and jiu-jitsu. It is generally understood (with some dispute) that Jeet Kune Do is the forerunner to today’s mixed martial arts as seen in the UFC.

As Vice described it in 2017, Jeet Kune Do “was an improvisational style of proto-MMA arts that embraced chaos — and changed the sport.”

Bruce Lee Cinemax Warrior
'Warrior,' a show envisioned by Bruce Lee, prominently features martial arts. But in a change from most martial arts TV, not everyone is a martial arts master. Most of Chinatown are populated by brawlers.

Had Lee starred in Warrior way back when, he would have introduced a mainstream audience to Jeet Kune Do years before the UFC. But perhaps Warrior couldn’t exist when Lee tried to produce it over 40 years ago. As his daughter Shannon Lee puts it, television as a storytelling medium just hadn’t caught up to Lee’s vision.

“Frankly, I don’t know if [my father’s] show could have been made, certainly not in the way it’s made today,” Shannon says. “We needed this sense of style, style my father had. The way he moved and the currentness of his soul.”

Of course, Bruce Lee had to evolve too before he could perfect his unique fighting style.

“Our notion is, he thought he was a warrior when he got to America, and then he realized he’s just a thug,” Tropper says “This is his journey to actually become the warrior he thought he was. The fight evolves with that.”

Warrior airs Fridays at 10 p.m. Eastern on Cinemax.

Media via Cinemax, HBO/David Bloomer