“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Those memorable last words from the 1974 film Chinatown could describe many of the characters’ attitudes of the mean, crime-filled streets in Cinemax’s new gritty, martial arts series. Though the Chinatown of Cinemax’s Warrior is the San Francisco of 1878.
Bruce Lee wrote a treatment for Warrior back in the late 60s and early 70s. “And there was talk of casting him as the lead,” says Shannon Lee, Executive Producer and daughter of the famed martial artist/actor. “And then, at some point, the studio came to him and said, I’m sorry. We can’t cast you because you’re Chinese, and a Chinese man cannot– We don’t think audiences will accept that in the United States. So we’re not going to cast you. And then next thing you know, a TV show called Kung Fu is on the air.”
That treatment spent much of the next 50 years sitting in a box collecting dust while becoming a bit of a legend among Bruce Lee fans until filmmaker Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond, Fast & Furious 6) asked Shannon Lee one day if the mythical treatment was real. She showed it to Lin, who wanted to develop the project the way her father intended.
“I was finishing a show for Cinemax called Banshee,” Jonathan Tropper recalls. Tropper too was a Bruce Lee fan. Banshee was wrapping up its final season and, having been familiar with the fabled project, Tropper’s interest was peaked when Cinemax approached him about Warrior. “They weren’t just papers; they were also drawings. Like, [Bruce Lee] could really draw the figures and pictures. And there was a lot of stuff in there. I don’t remember ever having to get the job or agreeing to do the job. We just all sort of started working together.”
The series revolves around Ah Sahm, a young Chinese man who, in the first episode, arrives in San Francisco fresh off the boat from China at a turbulent time in American history. He’s a man on a mission to find a specific young woman and, armed with great martial arts ability and fluent knowledge of English, is quickly recruited as an enforcer for a powerful Chinese gang. Meanwhile, a local lawman is tasked with recruiting a small team to clean up the crime in Chinatown to satisfy crooked politicians and industrialists.
Sahm is played by British-Japanese actor Andrew Koji, a relative newcomer who was certainly not cast due to any resemblance to Bruce Lee. “[Shannon’s] really not precious about her dad’s material other than protecting the integrity of it,” Tropper says. “But he didn’t have to look like Bruce Lee. He didn’t have to move like Bruce Lee. The idea was to find a really great unknown actor who could sort of embody the character as we all collectively envisioned him.”
“And we kind of asked him just to make a little tape of him sort of faking martial arts. He did have stunt experience. He’d actually been a stunt man on one of the Fast movies,” Tropper continued. Though Koji had worked with Justin Lin in a minor capacity for stunts in Fast & Furious 6, he hadn’t done martial arts since he was 12 years old. “But we just loved his essence and sort of the rawness he brought to the screen. And we decided, based on his tape, he could get trained.”
“We built that whole Chinatown in South Africa. I remember sitting there when he did his first fight scene, which was the brothel scene, and just watching him move after about five months of training and just, like, breathing this big sigh of relief. Like, we just built this whole city. Thank god this guy can move.”
“It was really important to us that the style of the fighting had a realism to it in the vein of my father,” Shannon Lee says. “If you’re a fan of Bruce Lee, as you watch the show, there’s little sneaky Easter eggs and homages in there.”
“We have a great fight choreographer named Brett Chan who’s a gigantic Bruce Lee fan and took a big pay cut to come do this just because he’s such a fan,” Tropper adds. “And we all decided these have to look like dirty street fights.”
According to Tropper, “The first thing about our show is not everyone who’s Asian knows kung-fu. So we have knife fighters, and we have just brawlers. And we have fist fighters and boxers. But the idea is just that it should feel messy and dirty and, when people get hurt, they should stay hurt. No wire work. No flying into the trees with swords. None of that. I have nothing against that. Just that won’t feel right on this show.”
Lee considers that “a Bruce Lee thing.” “My father, back when he was making his films, the films of the day were all about wire work, fantastical flying through the air sword fights sort of thing. And of course, him, being a real martial artist, he really wanted to bring that realism to the fights. So we wanted to make sure we did that.”
Tropper says they felt it was important for the show to bring that realism also to the world of their 1878 Chinatown:
You were just post-Civil War. We had just finished building the railroads. The Gold Rush was ending. And, you know, all these Chinese people who had come in the 50s for the Gold Rush and in the 60s to build the railroad, they were now left in Chinatown. And they had become the source for cheap labor, which created a huge political unrest in San Francisco and in greater America because there was cheap labor coming in and stealing the jobs of the Irishmen. Of course it wasn’t the Chinese’s fault; it was the industrialists who were importing cheap labor. And it created this political powder keg.
Warrior doesn’t shy away from the systemic racism against immigrants during the era as it depicts an America where European immigrants were treated differently than Asian immigrants because they’d already culturally assimilated.
Tropper also sees the series as particularly timely now. “What’s weird is we started working on this before the election. And suddenly everything we were doing, you know, became super relevant because it was just about institutionalized systemic racism in our politics, in our police force, in the way we handle immigrants. And it just became something we all could really sink our teeth into.”
And this is not the typical Kung Fu story. “The hero was always sort of noble and sexless and wasn’t allowed to have a sex drive, and wasn’t allowed to have sort of any cynicism or sarcasm. And the women were all sort of appendages to the men,” Tropper says. “The idea that Justin and Shannon presented me is we wanted to sort of pay homage to the genre while at the same time completely subverting it.”
Warrior is more than the sum of its parts. It’s not just a period crime drama, or a Western, or a Bruce Lee martial arts spectacle. As Jonathan Tropper describes the series, “It’s not just the immigrant story but the immigrant story as perceived by everyone around them.”
Warrior premieres on Cinemax on Friday, April 5th.