For those who don’t watch warrior (or who haven’t heard of it), I’ll jump straight into the hard sell of the streaming era’s most underrated drama: based on an unearthed television pitch from the late martial arts legend Bruce Lee and produced by his daughter Shannon, warrior is a historical crime drama set in 1870s San Francisco. Andrew Koji stars as Ah Sahm, a brash kung fu practitioner caught up in Chinatown’s gang wars and political struggles between exploited Chinese immigrants, disaffected Irish workers and the entrenched white establishment. If you enjoyed the gritty, character-driven historical fiction of Dead wood or Boardwalk Empireyou will love warrior. If you got sucked into the political intrigue, blood and guts, and twisted family drama of Game of Thronesyou will love warrior. If you like martial arts cinema, especially the incredibly intricate and shockingly gnarly modern variety, then you’ll love Love warrior. It’s one of the best shows of its time, the upcoming season is better than ever, and now that Max and parent company Warner Bros. Discovery (WB) tighten their belts, is it now time to start watching, or else warrior perhaps forced to retire at its peak.
warrior is a series that could not have emerged until late 2010, in the heyday of peak television. It’s original, rather than based on a well-known intellectual property with a range of merchandise for sale, although it has Bruce Lee’s name above the title. It’s expensive, shot on lavish sets built in Cape Town, South Africa and featuring at least one feature-quality extended action sequence per episode. It’s progressive, starring a mostly Asian cast and a staunch denunciation of 19th-century (and implicitly modern) immigration policies and white supremacy. It’s exactly the kind of big swing that streamers like Max are now axing in favor of tweaking the Harry Potter books again, but it’s also the exact mix of drama, sex, violence and social relevance that usually appeals to critics and cable audiences. Had warrior premiered on a Sunday night on HBO, you would have heard of it a long time ago, but unfortunately the first two seasons aired on Cinemax, which pretty much guaranteed no one would take it seriously. Even I hadn’t seen it until it was canceled by Cinemax and came out on HBO Max in January 2021, and I watch television for a living.
Thanks to the passionate new streaming audience, warrior got a third season and finally returns to Max with new episodes on Thursday, June 29, but if this newfound attention didn’t come until a year later, after HBO’s parent company Warner Bros. had merged with the penny-pinching Discovery, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. Instead of a third season, warrior could have been permanently shelved, another of CEO David Zaszlav’s notorious tax write-offs. Should season 3 fail to deliver – hell, it probably should overachievinggiven how skittish and cash strapped WBD seems to be right now – warrior could easily bite the dust, which would be a great loss. If you’ve just heard about the series or have been putting it off for a rainy day, I implore you to start watching now. You may not get another chance.
Now, for those of you who are already familiar with the series and have been patiently waiting for its return, I have some great news: warrior not a step lost. Despite the long production hiatus, almost the entire cast and main creatives are back, and there’s no evidence the new network has attempted to retool it in any way. The story picks up months after the gruesome race riots of Season 2, in which Ah Sahm established himself as Chinatown’s new folk hero. His neighbors used to fear him as a member of the Hop Wei tong, but now they admire him as their champion against the police and the Irish. The ambitious young gangster doubts his place in the tongue, even as his best friend Young Jun (Jason Tobin) ascended the throne. Meanwhile, Ah Sahm’s ruthless sister, Mei Ling (Dianne Doan), continues to consolidate the rest of Chinatown’s gangs under her banner, dipping her toe into white society in search of greater influence. But as both she and Ms./vigilante Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng) are about to discover, no amount of wealth or success can be enough to buy them respect outside of Chinatown. At the center of everything, as always, is the kind and cunning Hong Chao (Hoon Lee), warrior‘s answer to Dead wood‘s Al Swearengen and one of modern TV’s most fascinating characters.
Almost every returning regular customer will receive a new foil this season. Sparks fly between Ah Sahm and Yan Mi (Chelsea Muirhead), a spiky new business partner. Li Yong (Joe Taslim), the noble warrior who remains tragically devoted to the city’s baddest crime boss, reunites with an old friend (Mark Dacascos) who appeals to his better nature. Quirky Hop Wei Lieutenant Hong (Chen Tang) falls for a charming lounge singer (Telly Leung) who introduces him to San Francisco’s underground queer subculture. Across town, corrupt cop Bill O’Hara (Kieran Bew) is at the mercy of a new, even more violently racist police chief (Neels Clasen), while impoverished opium addict Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones) is recruited at the Secret Service. Even the sinister mayor Buckley (Langley Kirkwood) has a new ally and love interest (Dominique Maher). Absent from this season are Joanna Vanderham and Céline Buckens as Penelope Blake and her sister Sophie, which has unfortunate implications for both characters, but with so much else going on in the season, they’re hardly missed.
The common thread running through all of these storylines is, as usual, the machinations of entrenched white wealth, as personified by Mayor Buckley and industrialist Douglas Strickland (Adam Rayner), who continue to pit San Francisco’s starving Irish and Chinese workers against each other. Irish trade union leader and boxer Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger) digs into the core of “legitimate” politics in hopes of finding employment for his constituents. warrior continues to explore the tension between the recent Chinese immigrants and their Irish predecessors in a way that acknowledges the understandable anger and desperation of the Irish without ever ignoring or forgiving the racial hatred that accompanied it. Whether Leary and the rest of his men can see it or not, the show’s lyrics clearly identify the true villains as the politicians and robber barons who chew them up, spit them out, and then tell them to blame their problems on immigrants. warriorSadly, the show’s focus on the efforts of wealthy white institutions pushing white workers to side with their color over their class hasn’t become less relevant since the show ended.
By all rights, warrior should be next Break bada show that languished in obscurity and was canceled before availability on Netflix launched it into the stratosphere. warrior has gained a lot of momentum since its debut on Max, but in an increasingly volatile industry, there’s every reason to fear that the show’s days are still numbered. Come what may, TV’s nastiest underdog has come back swinging. On three more rounds.
Season Three of ‘Warrior’ premieres June 29 on Max.