Almost three years after Banshee wrapped and we finally have a successor — well, mostly. We’re two episodes in and while Warrior has a whole lot of Banshee in its genes, it stands confidently on its own.
Based on a passion project of Bruce Lee’s that never got off the ground, Warrior follows a martial arts prodigy who immigrates from China to San Francisco in the late 1880s. Ah Sahm travels to America to find his lost sister but finds himself roped into working for the Tong, a major Chinese gang, as a hatchet man – a gang enforcer. Barely in the country and Ah Sahm is already at the epicentre of a burgeoning city-wide gang war.
Following through on Lee’s concept for a television show around a martial artist in the wild west (usurped at the time but eventually rediscovered and shopped around by his daughter Shannon Lee) and created by Jonathon Tropper – also the creator of Banshee – Warrior has turned out exactly how I hoped it would.
This is mostly in terms of being Banshee-esque.
Its action is swift and brutal – sometimes uncomfortably so – and incredibly satisfying. Not quite as frequent as Banshee so far but the quality is there. Lead actor Andrew Koji channels Lee’s confident, excited physical presence in combat without impersonating or caricaturing the legend; and is then warped by the bone-splitting bloodshed of Banshee. This combo can echo the ruthless rapid-fire choreography of the Indonesian The Raid films at times, and even stars The Raid star Joe Taslim in a supporting role.
There are traces of Banshee in the tone and atmosphere of Warrior as well, despite being an 1880s period piece. Its Neo-Western gang warfare backdrop feels as much like Deadwood as it does Banshee, split between being a traditional Western and a more contemporary crime-thriller. Its rival factions, the backhanded deals, the honourable, cool-headed hero – it’s ultimately a fusion, a modern take on a period-appropriate Western that stars a Chinese immigrant as its protagonist and a majority-Asian cast with martial arts action as a major pillar. While Bruce Lee’s original treatment was apparently rather basic (being written for television in the 70s), it was ahead of its time in subverting the conservative, rigid Western genre with an urban backdrop and an Asian lead.
Even its story pacing and plotting manages to feel very Banshee-ish. While it depends on the episode and season, Banshee’s hybrid procedural-serial format has been carried into Warrior, where it seems to work just as well. This lets the show focus on several characters and a central narrative, splitting its screen time equally among its supporting characters, while also making the larger action sequences the focal points of individual episodes. They push the central narrative forward and also work as isolated, memorable episodes, keeping the show exciting and fast-paced.
It’s too early to say whether Warrior will lean towards a more serialized, drama-friendly format or towards more contained episodes with a faster pace – so far, it’s the former — but like the rest of the show, the similarities to Banshee are unmistakable.
Warrior finds its identity in its period setting and cast, which keeps the show very distinct from its pseudo-predecessor.
1880s San Francisco doesn’t feel especially new as a setting, but for a martial arts crime-drama focused around Chinese characters, it’s refreshing. It also helps match the brutal, exhausting action, where its muddy roads and newborn industry give the sense that these factions and their pawns are fighting for their own part of a still-forming, still-growing American city. Where everyone is fighting for survival as much as success, where every side feels threatened and violence is quickly ramping up to city-wide warfare, Warrior’s San Francisco feels appropriately dangerous and volatile.
Lastly, Warrior’s mostly-Asian cast is fantastic and the use of both English and Cantonese language is wonderfully entertaining.
Alongside Andrew Koji and Joe Taslim, Jason Tobin, Dianne Doan, Deadly Class’s Olivia Cheng and Banshee’s Hoon Lee (among others) all give strong performances, playing more into Warrior’s side as a heightened and Western-styled crime-thriller than anything seriously dramatic.
Warrior leverages its English-speaking cast and regularly transitions between spoken English and Cantonese in-scene, depending on the characters present. Cantonese will be spoken as English whenever it’s the only language present in the scene, and then shift to actual spoken Cantonese whenever a non-Chinese character enters the scene, making the language (and racial) barrier explicit.
While the focus on spoken English was likely to appeal to as large an English-speaking audience as possible (though according to some comments online, its Cantonese writing and line delivery is spotty), it’s also a distinct flair that highlights the American setting and the show’s gangster-centric Western-crime saga. With racial divide and conflict as a central theme of Warrior – seemingly leading to a large-scale race war at some point during the season – it’s a clever motif that keeps its Chinese characters grounded in the setting and time period while keeping the show decidedly American in tone. I’m not one to say whether this is completely successful or not (especially when I’m not American either) but it definitely suits the period-set atmosphere better than if everyone were speaking English.
Within its first two episodes, Warrior has established a strong, likeable cast of characters and a compelling ye olde gang war. Threads are teased and, while there’s been relatively little action so far, Warrior clearly setting up a more intense story for the rest of the season. It’s also, at least to me, a whole lot like Banshee. I can’t fucking wait for the rest of it.