We all know the kung fu movie trope: Our brave and noble hero is fighting the dastardly villain mano-a-mano. He’s looking good, but then Baddie McBadguy starts getting the upper hand, knocking our now bloodied leading man into the dirt. While the villain is gloating though, our hero taps a new internal well of strength and staggers back to his feet. Wiping off the blood, he calmly refocuses and then unleashes a hellacious whupping on his foe, stringing together a fiery combo ending in a knockout blow that divorces the fiend from his senses. Cue the celebrations. Cameras pull back. Credits roll. The end.
Warrior is about 90% of the way through that sequence.
After a good but flawed first season for Cinemax’s martial arts drama, renewal looked iffy as ratings were never really high. But Warrior, which is based on an undeveloped TV series treatment from none other than the legendary Bruce Lee himself, surprised critics when it got picked up for a second season. A second season which is simply superior in every way.
Characters given fleeting service before now get fleshed out considerably by showrunner Jonathan Tropper and his writing team, delving deep into what makes them tick and taking some on some very unexpected arcs. Pacing which previously lagged in places is now also taught throughout with the barest of dead spots – even when the show breaks off from the main storylines to do a standalone episode set in a rowdy Mexican town host to an Enter the Dragon-style fighting tournament, it never wavers in its thrilling pace.
And the show’s already excellent martial arts action scenes get taken to a whole new level thanks to the work of maestro fight choreographer Brett Chan and the very capable and willing cast. The earlier-mentioned tournament offers awsome looks at martial arts forms not seen in the show before, but it’s a late-season sprawling city-wide brawl involving dozens of combatants, mini-set-pieces, and dramatic character beats which stands as the pinnacle of action direction in the series.
Long before we even get to that point though, there’s an already noticeable escalation in quality from the moment this sophomore batch of episodes kicks off. Having now found his path, lead Andrew Koji infuses immigrant-turned-Chinese gangster Ah Sahm with a whole lot more attitude this time around, as he’s done trying to win back his sister Mai Ling (Dianne Doan) and is instead staking out his own turf. Meanwhile – despite her lover/enforcer Li Yong (Joe Taslim) now starting to question the morality of her ambitions – she’s risen up to not just take the reins of the Long Zi tong, but also a position of power over the Fung Hai and the Hop Wei, the two other major gangs vying for power in the bustling Chinatown of 19th Century San Francisco.
The Hop Wei is, of course, the home to which Ah Sahm has returned to serve alongside best friend Young Jun (Jason Tobin), who is also starting to bristle under the control of his Tong boss father. Together with oddball new recruit Hong (Chen Tang), they begin scheming of ways to claim their own power. Including making some money on the side in the vicious fighting pits managed by the mysterious Rosalita Vega (Maria Elana Laas).
Ah Sahm is also assisting brothel madam Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng) on her bloody quest to exact justice on those who abuse and dehumanize her fellow Chinese immigrants. A quest that is called starkly into question when wealthy widow newcomer Nellie Davenport (Miranda Raison) enters Ah Toy’s life and shows her that there’s a much more benevolent way she could have been helping those she cares about that doesn’t involve her blood-streaked blade or young girls on their backs pleasuring locals. The revelation is a gamechanger for Ah Toy that will bring her both happiness and pain.
Another hugely impactful newcomer is found in Sophie Mercer (Celine Buckens), the idealistic free spirit younger sister of the mayor’s estranged wife, Penelope Blake (Joanna Vanderham). Besides for calling some of her fledgeling industrialist sister’s life choices into question, Sophie’s biggest contribution comes in the form of a burgeoning relationship with Irish revolutionary/union leader Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger).
Feeling like he’s been backed into a corner by local businesses preferring cheaper Chinese immigrants as labourers leaving the Irish on the brink of starvation, Leary has been on a destructive rampage with fists and dynamite to get his point across, ostensibly becoming Warrior season one’s bad guy. With Sophie though, not only do we get to cut open that adamantine carapace of a demeanour under which he’s been hiding this entire time, but we also learn that there’s a lot more sympathy to be found there. Is he really a bad man or just a man in a bad situation with no good choices?
Caught up in all of this are local policemen Bill O’Hara (Kieran Bew) and Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Lee) – still at loggerheads with each other – as well as middle-man fixer Wang Chao (Hoon Lee). As we get to know a lot more about the latter and his own conflicted loyalties, he also gets himself caught up in the crossfire between the law and Zing (Dustin Nguyen), the vicious new leader of the Fung Hai tong who doesn’t take kindly to living under the stiletto boot heel of “ally” Mai Ling.
If that all feels like a lot of story going on, it’s because there is. But Tropper and co make it work by being extremely consistent across the entire tapestry with their examinations of topical themes. The racial politics at the core of this American immigrant story is handled deftly, with one side never being demonized over the other. This is no “all white men are evil” tale. They also touch quite a bit on themes of family – how the one you choose is quite often more important than the one you’re born into – and moving out from their shadow to stand as your own person.
This is not the level of deep familial character drama that will see Warrior showered with gold from stodgy awards shows (occasionally some of the performances and dialogue also slip below the ambitions of the scripting), but it makes for thrilling and compelling viewing. Backed by fantastic production design that is far more varied this time around (shout out to Cape Town for being able to stand in for everything from desert frontier towns to verdant wine estates), in terms of pure entertainment Warrior season two delivers with the meaty force of a nun-chuck to the side of a skull.
But to contextualize all of the above in terms of that metaphor with which I opened this review, in this season Warrior risen up with an explosive second wind, setting things up for a third season which will deliver that final exclamation point punch to close out the story. A punch that doesn’t look likely right now. Thanks to some boardroom wrangling brought about by AT&T purchasing Time Warner and all its subsidiaries, Cinemax has been left out in the cold with no new original programming as the likes of HBO Max gets all the attention.
It has already been recently confirmed that Warrior will be migrating to HBO Max in the near future, but that will essentially just be re-releases of the first two seasons. With the cast and crew already scattered to their respective corners of the world after shooting wrapped up last year, it will take a massive viewing effort from fans on HBO Max to warrant bringing Warrior back to deliver that celebratory knockout it so firmly deserves. But as we see in so many of the show’s brilliant fights though, I wouldn’t count Ah Sahm and the rest of his gang out for the count just yet.
And if you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s a second opinion from Nick:
Last Updated: October 1, 2020