Cinemax's scripted programming is largely known for its action, which in the past has ranged from the explosive, heart-thumping sequences of Strike Back, a show that produces the kind of action that wouldn't be out of place in a summer blockbuster, to the intimate and often brawling violence of Banshee, an ambitious drama that proved Cinemax could indulge itself in pulpy action and fight scenes while also telling deeper and richer narratives. The network's newest series, the martial arts drama Warrior, aspires to be more like the latter than the former, but it struggles to rise to the same narrative level.
Created by Banshee's Jonathan Tropper and based on the writings of Bruce Lee, Warrior follows the story of a martial arts prodigy, Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), who comes to San Francisco in the 1800s with the intention of finding his sister (Dianne Doan) and bringing her back home to China. He is delayed after getting into a fight at immigration, though, and is soon sold by the profiteer Wang Chao (Banshee's Hoon Lee, in a part written specifically with him in mind) to the Hop Wei, one of the tongs in the city. He starts working as a hatchet man alongside the impulsive and reckless Young Jun (Jason Tobin), the son of the leader of the Hop Wei, and what unfolds is a story that is often entertaining but never quite as deep as it thinks it is.
If that sounds like a dig at Warrior, it's not really meant to be; not every show needs to be chasing the prestige label, and not every show should be. Forgetting for a second that the goal of everything is to make money, there is theoretically plenty of room for a series like Warrior to exist alongside the highbrow dramas we all love to praise and, say, the broadcast procedurals that are consistent performers but rarely bastions of nuanced storytelling. Warrior is essentially the mid-level studio movie that keeps you entertained while you're watching it, but might not stick with you once the credits roll. And that's not necessarily a bad thing as a viewer.
However, there are a few specific reasons to check out Warrior that I probably need to address. First is the martial arts of it all. The slickly choreographed fight scenes, which obviously find their way into every episode whether or not there's a real reason for them to exist, are as mesmerizing to watch as they are dramatic. There is a fluidity to them that makes every sequence a welcome reprieve from the still choreographed but (usually) less impressive brawls that frequently dominate action films and TV shows.
Second, the cast of the series, which is also executive-produced by Justin Lin (The Fast and the Furious franchise) and Shannon Lee, the daughter of Bruce Lee, is predominantly made up of Asians or Asian Americans actors. Representation in Hollywood, especially for the Asian community, remains limited, and Warrior is a show that works to elevate the Asian voices at the center of its story. The white supporting players appear not just dull in comparison, but sometimes feel like they exist in a different show. Between the all-too-familiar scheming of corrupt politicians, the young, pretty wife who can't stand the awful husband she married to save her family, and the drunk policemen with gambling addictions, the white men and women of Warrior are nothing we haven't seen before, and Warrior doesn't do much to add to their stories. Which is honestly fine in this instance; they're not the stars of the show.
Unfortunately, not going far enough gets Warrior into trouble in other ways, since it extends to what is actually one of the ongoing storylines of the show. The series' setting in the second half of the 1800s, after the Civil War has concluded, naturally brings the topics of race and racism to the forefront of the show's storytelling, and it starkly highlights just how little has changed in America in the years since Warrior takes place.
Ah Sahm (and the rest of the Chinese community) faces racism literally from the moment he arrives in San Francisco, whether it's from the Irish who think the Chinese are stealing their jobs, the police unhappily tasked with policing Chinatown, or the seemingly polished and poised members of high society who look down their noses at everyone who doesn't look like them. Seeing the failures of today paralleled in a series set more than 100 years in the past makes it impossible to ignore the systemic racism that has existed in our country for hundreds of years, but the series also isn't doing much to further the conversation either. And honestly, there's enough unmasked racism in the United States in 2019 that I don't know how much I want to watch it play out across my TV screen if the show isn't going to say something about it.
Still, the show remains otherwise entertaining, at least in part, because of the presence of two of its leading female characters. Not long after his arrival in America, Ah Sahm makes the acquaintance of Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng), a cunning and powerful madam who moonlights as a vicious vigilante, doling out justice to racist dickheads and the people who've wronged her. He also quickly discovers his sister has no intention of returning to China, as she is not only married to the leader of a rival tong but is actually the great woman behind the frail and aging man. She's the person who's calling the shots in Chinatown and is plotting to maneuver and scheme her way to the top.
Neither woman's arc is going to blow anyone's mind with novelty, but I'll also never turn down the chance to watch two women, who are obviously smarter than the people with whom they surround themselves, run the world. Also, watching Ah Toy slice open unsuspecting pricks is pretty freaking cathartic as much as it is cool. It's right up there with Ah Sahm's incredible ability to take down an entire room of assailants on his own, in a matter of what feels like seconds. And sometimes that's all that matters. Cinemax knows its strengths. It knows its audience and the shows that audience will likely be drawn to. There's a reason the network returned to its action roots after attempting to pivot away from them a few years ago, and if Cinemax continues to produce shows like Warrior, a show that is, first and foremost, entertaining, then I'm really not going to complain too much.
Warrior premieres Friday, April 5 at 10/9c on Cinemax.