Beginning in the 1860’s, and stretching well into the 20th Century, San Francisco’s Chinatown was a battleground. Gangs of Chinese immigrants, known as tongs, fought over the control of prostitution, gambling, and opium dens. Every tong had a force of paid fighters, called boo how doy. At its peak, the Tong Wars included as many as thirty different groups fighting for supremacy of San Francisco’s underworld.
Not surprisingly, Bruce Lee felt this setting would make for an excellent action drama. He wrote a treatment set during the Tong Wars, but unfortunately passed before he was able to bring his story to fruition. Famously, it has been rumored that Lee’s treatment was the original basis for the 1970’s TV classic Kung Fu, starring David Carradine. Warner Bros. execs liked Lee’s idea, but didn’t like the idea of an Asian leading man.
Decades later, his daughter, Shannon Lee – who runs Bruce Lee Enterprises – would team with writer Jonathan Tropper to bring her father’s project to life. On April 5, 2019, Warrior debuted on Cinemax. Before the month was out the show was renewed for a second season. (Cinemax is handing all original production over to HBO, so Warrior will be moving to Cinemax’s sister company shortly.)
Andrew Koji stars as Ah Sahm, a Chinese martial arts prodigy. Sahm has traveled from China to San Francisco looking for his sister who fled her abusive husband. Once there, he becomes involved with the city’s gang wars as he navigates Chinatown’s underbelly.
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Stunt coordinator Brett Chan had a tough task ahead of him when he took on Warrior. Few action projects come in with such a specific set of expectations from the prospective audience. But with Warrior’s status, as a martial arts legend’s passion project, Chan felt the need to honor Lee’s style and vision. On top of that, the directorial vision prefers long takes in good lighting, which is great for the viewer, but tough on everyone serving up the fight scenes.
Still, production difficulties aside, season two – filmed in South Africa – promises to up the ante on the action.
In addition to its strong emphasis on fighting choreography, Warrior is also a drama, with a sprawling cast of characters and a complicated plot. Most of the cast is Asian, something US TV executives weren’t at all willing to entertain in Lee’s day.
Jason Tobin, who has a leading role in the Cinemax series, revered Lee growing up. He took up karate as a child growing up in England. “It was easy for a young Chinese kid in an all-white boarding school to get picked on,” he told the South China Morning Post. And he’s brought that passion, both for acting and Bruce Lee’s legacy, with him to bring life to one of the martial arts legend’s final works.
Warrior season two will have an early spring release date.