'Warrior': TV Review

David Bloomer/CINEMAX
Stick it out until the fifth episode for some real fun.
4/5/2019

Cinemax's new martial arts Western doesn't always live up to its 'Deadwood' meets Bruce Lee premise, but it's still worth checking out.

Imagine Deadwood with the town on the brink of a civil war. Now imagine that, into that floridly verbose fray, enters Caine from Kung Fu. Now imagine that, as the heavens intended, Caine was being played by Bruce Lee.

That's something resembling the conceit of Warrior, Cinemax's new martial arts Western, which was created by Jonathan Tropper (Banshee) based on the same original Bruce Lee concept that Lee's widow claimed (and the production studio denied) was lifted and reimagined as Kung Fu. Boasting Justin Lin among its executive producers, but disappointingly not among its directors, Warrior only rarely lives up to the lofty heights of that conceit, but since the full realization of that conceit would be the greatest show in the history of television, it's an unfair standard to hold anything to.

Through its first six episodes, Warrior is frequently fun, occasionally audacious and always representationally interesting, which is enough to work through its slow patches and to excuse that one half of the show is vastly better executed than the other half.

The pilot, directed by Assaf Bernstein (Fauda), opens in San Francisco in 1878. Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) arrives as part of the latest boatload of Chinese immigrants.. After an immediate display of martial arts expertise, Ah Sahm is recruited to serve as a hatchet man for the Hop Wei tong, an organized crime family on the brink of war with at least two other tongs in Chinatown. Ah Sahm, initial motivations unclear, soon befriends the mercurial Young Jun (Jason Tobin) and seeks out a rival tong's second-in-command Mai Ling (Dianne Doan), an unexpectedly powerful woman supported by a lieutenant (Joe Taslim) with fighting skills that may rival those of Ah Sahm.

Meanwhile, San Francisco Mayor Samuel Blake (Christian McKay, falling back, for no particular reason on his Orson Welles affectations from Richard Linkater's Me and Orson Welles) is trying to manage a city torn apart by racial violence — Dean Jagger's Dylan Leary leads the Irish laborers pushing back against the new Chinese immigrant wave — as well as the antipathy of his young wife (Joanna Vanderham). Entrusted with calming things in Chinatown is Sergeant Bill O'Hara (Kieran Bew), building a specialized squad that includes Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones), a forward-thinking rookie whose accent forces him to admit that he's from Georgia basically in every episode.

There are, as I already suggested, two sides of the story in Warrior, one very good with room for improvement and the other not very good, but with elements of potential that could emerge.

The Chinatown part of the narrative is where Warrior has a clear imperative for existing and the inspiration to do interesting things.

The martial arts will, of course, be the facet attracting the most general audience curiosity and the fights, from choreographer Brett Chan, aren't outsized wuxia-style fits of whimsy and exaggeration, nor laced with humor in the Jackie Chan vein. They're athletic and effective and take advantage whenever possible of what the actors are capable of doing with limited slo-motion embellishment or editing. They're also character-driven, so there's a smooth efficiency to Ah Sahm's fighting, a frenzied mania to Young Jun's attacks and when The Raid veteran Taslim gets going, that's when the show truly hums. There's a strong contrast between the fighting coming out of Chinatown and the brutal, bare-knuckle boxing that settles matters on the Irish side of town.

The show isn't all fighting. Far from it. There's also a lot of sweaty, grunting sex. This is Cinemax, after all. And even that is progressive in its own way. And yes, there's some lag between the screwing and the skirmishes, but at least the writers have an interest in the Chinese characters and what brought them to America and what their version of the American Dream looks like. The pilot has one "Confucius says" joke before shifting away from the kind of appropriated mysticism Kung Fu loved imparting. These are pitched as characters with tangible cultures and a native language that the show is very smart about depicting.

There's some fun Hunt for Red October-style cleverness with the language. When the characters are talking with each other, they often begin in Cantonese, which the show then shifts smoothly into unaccented English. In scenes shot from the European perspective or with white characters, basically anybody who wouldn't understand them, they speak primarily in Cantonese and when they have to break into their actual English, it's an immigrant's halting, accented English. That's a bad way of describing it, probably, but it's as literal a representation of code switching as you're likely to see on TV. Do my ears have a clue if the Pan-Asian cast, dominated by Canadian Chinese and British Chinese actors, are doing justice to the Cantonese dialogue when it's required? Nope. And that, I suspect, is part of the point.

The Irish side of the narrative isn't without attempted layers, reminding modern audiences that the anti-immigrant sentiments of 2019 are just the latest ripples in centuries of anti-immigrant paranoia, each wave worried that the wave that follows them is undermining their sense of what it means to be an American, all while being fueled by the same capitalist paranoia. So you have the Irish, still facing plenty of xenophobia themselves, hating the Chinese for coming in and taking their jobs and everybody hating the former Confederates. It's a lot of hatred and, even if I was interested in some of the talk about the growth of San Francisco, a lot of scruffy moral ugliness being conveyed in a hodgepodge of accents and through Tropper's dialogue and storytelling approach, which are blunt and tend to repeat even the points of nuance so frequently that all subtext is grunted out of existence. There are a lot of bland and forgettable performances, with Weston-Jones, Bew and Vanderham all giving less interesting variations on characters from period dramas ranging from the aforementioned Deadwood to Copper to Mercy Street to Cinemax's own spectacular The Knick.

When characters aren't fighting, Warrior spends most of its time on both sides of the story wallowing in "Woe is me" historical miserabilism and the performances generally tend toward one-note gloominess other than Tobin, whose Young Jun grew on me with each episode as a source of both unpredictable line-readings and humor. Tobin, Taslim and Hoon Lee, as something of a slick middle-man negotiating his way between the tongs, are all much more dynamic than Koji, to the show's occasional detriment.

Even with the aspects of the story I was liking, the general wallowing of Warrior was wearing on me a bit and after four hours, I was close to checking out until the fifth episode, from writer Kenneth Lin and Kevin Tancharoen. A single-set throwback blend of exploitation Western and kung fu tropes, it places Ah Sahm and Young Jun at a Nevada saloon where they have to help fight off both racism and a group of desperadoes, and it's a blast. Titled "The Blood and the Shit," the fifth episode of Warrior is like a reward for viewer patience, a clever genre exercise that rejuvenated my energy for the season's home stretch. The sixth episode wasn't quite at that level, but it held some of the momentum and confirmed that once Tropper and the producers get the mix right, Warrior could be a show that works as both high-brow and low-brow pleasure.

Cinemax has developed some distinctive dramas in recent years, dramas that have gotten a little dismissed or ignored. Banshee at least aired a few seasons, and The Knick a couple, but I'm still bitter that the hard-boiled period thriller Quarry, good enough that it would have been a minor sensation on an FX or Netflix, got lost after one. Whatever my reservations about Warrior, it's a show that deserves not to get lost.

Cast: Andrew Koji, Kieran Bew, Olivia Cheng, Dianne Doan, Dean Jagger, Langley Kirkwood, Hoon Lee, Christian McKay, Joe Taslim, Jason Tobin, Joanna Vanderham, Tom Weston-Jones and Perry Yung
Creator: Jonathan Tropper
Premieres: Friday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Cinemax)