In 1971, martial arts legend Bruce Lee pitched a television show that was passed over for a simple and unfortunate reason: his race. At the time (and even now), Hollywood didn't have faith an American show with an Asian lead would attract an audience to satisfy costs. Lee died two years later in 1973, his dream unfulfilled.
As of January 1, both seasons of the Cinemax action-drama Warrior are streaming on HBO Max. Based on an original pitch by Bruce Lee and produced by Jonathan Tropper (Banshee), Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) and Bruce Lee's daughter, Shannon Lee, Warrior takes place in late 1870s San Francisco. It tells the story of kung fu master Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji, starring in this year's Snake Eyes) who travels to America in search of his sister. What Ah Sahm finds instead is a war between rival gangs, crooked cops, and violent anti-Chinese sentiment stoked by politicians, with Ah Sahm caught in the middle of it all.
In the spirit of films like Gangs of New York and TV shows like Peaky Blinders, Warrior is a crime noir lover's feast with mighty impressive martial arts choreography (designed by Brett Chan) and a vast ensemble of vivid, unforgettable characters. The Chinese Tongs — made up of Jason Tobin's Young Jun, Joe Taslim's Li Yong, Olivia Cheng's sultry Ah Toy, and more — have enviable style and swagger as they march through their territories.
But the show's white characters are just as fleshed out as their Chinese neighbors. Socialite Penelope Blake (Joanna Vanderham) is more than just a Juliet to Ah Sahm's Romeo. She's an actual underestimated power player in San Francisco's politics. The brawny Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger) is a formidable physical rival to Ah Sahm who stirs anti-Chinese resentment that feels uncomfortably close to MAGA. And there's your overwhelmed, hard boiled cops and crooked politicians, who all make Warrior as much a political epic as Game of Thrones. The only difference between San Francisco and Westeros is that the dragons of Warrior wear better suits.
And yes, Bruce Lee aficionados get their fill with many references to the man himself. While the show wisely prioritizes its own story, Lee's cinematic iconography and personal philosophies sneak into Warrior when you least expect. The show is quietly an origin story of Jeet Kune Do, and an Easter egg in Season 1 where Ah Sahm dons a dusty cowboy hat like Kwai Chang Caine (the Kung Fu starring role Bruce Lee was passed over in favor of David Carradine) feels like vindication.
But Warrior's real attraction is its invaluable dive into a historically significant period of San Francisco's Chinatown. While not based on any true story, the show fictionalizes the very real socio-cultural dominoes that led to the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, still the only U.S. law to prohibit an ethnic group from immigrating to the United States. This critical piece of American history, glossed over in history textbooks, gets the pulpy, sexy kung fu movie zhoosh in this hour-long cable drama.
As of now, Warrior is unofficially canceled after Cinemax ended all original scripted programming. However, the show's recent arrival on the HBO Max platform is a chance for Warrior to find an audience outside niche cable subscribers. In an Instagram post on January 1, Justin Lin pleaded for people to check out Warrior in an effort to convince WarnerMedia big wigs of a possible third season (or more).
"All I'm asking is for you to share some time with us," Lin wrote. "Right now there are no plans for Season 3 and beyond, but speaking for everyone on the Warrior creative team, we still have a lot more stories to tell. Our goal is to keep building our community, and if enough people share our passion, we’ll be able to keep our journey and Bruce Lee’s vision alive and thriving."
In a September 2020 interview with Inverse, Shannon Lee similarly said that streaming on HBO Max could lead to the show's renewal.
"We have [every] intention to move into Season 3," Lee said. "I think it's a highly important show in the one-hour TV category. And it has been an extremely uphill battle and heartbreaking to have our show ostensibly canceled because of decisions that did not take into account the significance of our show."
Speaking the same year Covid-19 led to renewed anti-Asian racism, Lee believes Warrior "has cultural significance and importance that should not have just been completely unheeded."
She continued: "My father always said, the individual man is always more important than a system. [Warrior] means everything. Without it in the world, it doesn't get to spark curiosity or open people's minds and entertain and attract people to my father and his work. It's meaningful that I got to get his project to fruition, and to finish his work. I continue to hold out hope for a Season 3, or some conclusion to our show, because it is not concluded."
Warrior is streaming now on HBO Max.