Warrior and the Legacy of Bruce Lee

Cinemax's Warrior was developed from notes by the legendary Bruce Lee. Here's how the long lost project became a reality.

It’s the project Bruce Lee fans have been whispering about for decades.

“The Warrior,” a treatment for a television series about a Chinese fighter who comes to America during the era of the Old West and uses his unique skills to help those in need, was first conceptualized in the late 1960s. Lee wrote the treatment with himself in mind, and was met by disappointment when studios felt that American viewers weren’t ready for a Chinese lead on prime time TV. A few years later, Warner Bros. TV brought Kung Fu…a series about a Chinese monk who comes to America during the era of the Old West, to ABC for three seasons. Oh yeah, and they cast David Carradine, a white man, in the lead role as Kwai Chang Kane. The studio always maintained that any similarities to “The Warrior” were coincidental, but nevertheless, speculation has continued to swirl, nearly 50 years later.

But now, martial arts fans will see something far closer to Bruce Lee’s vision, as one of the great unrealized projects of the actor, martial artist, and writer’s career is finally seeing the light of day, in the form of Warrior on Cinemax. The project was developed from Bruce Lee’s original treatment and notes for “The Warrior,” with Shannon Lee, Justin Lin, and Jonathan Tropper serving as executive producers. The concept of a 50-year-old story getting dusted off for a major cable network in the age of peak TV would be newsworthy in itself. But its place in history as part of the legacy of one of the most celebrated pop culture icons of the 20th century gives it an almost magical appeal.

Executive producer and Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, was well aware of the story of “The Warrior” throughout her life, but didn’t see the actual notes her father had made for the show until relatively recently.

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“It was always common knowledge in the family that this treatment existed,” Lee says. “But I didn’t come into contact with the papers until I started running the business, which was late 2000.”

It was during her early days as President of the Bruce Lee Foundation that she finally found her father’s original treatment for the series. “It’s like one complete treatment but then multiple drafts of treatments and notes as well,” she says. “And I was like, oh my gosh, here is this thing that I’ve heard about my whole life.”

The challenges of running the Bruce Lee Foundation and getting the prolific martial artist’s papers in order meant that “The Warrior” took a back seat for a little while. “The treatment just kind of went back into the box and there it sat with the idea that maybe at some point we would be in a position to do something with it,” she says.

But then Fast & Furious and Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin, who like other Bruce Lee fans had long been aware of the concept of “The Warrior,” heard that the treatment itself had been found and he contacted Lee. The meeting between Lin and Lee finally spurred the development of Warrior, with the mission of making it the way it was originally intended.

“When I had first heard about the story of Bruce Lee and the western and Kung Fu, I didn’t know what was real and what was myth,” Lin says. “To me it was very emotional because growing up, I remember as a kid watching Kung Fu and not understanding why there was a Caucasian man playing Asian with an accent. And so to be able to be a part of the process of bringing this to life was something that I knew was going to take time, but I felt like it was a worthy journey.”

With Lin and Lee working together to get Warrior to the screen, the search was on for a showrunner, which led them to Jonathan Tropper (Cinemax’s Banshee), whose knowledge of and passion for martial arts impressed the pair early on.

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“It was very surreal reading the notes,” Tropper says of his first exposure to Lee’s treatment. “I had been a Bruce Lee fan since I was a little kid and I had done martial arts for all of my childhood and a good part of my adult life, so he had always sort of loomed totemic over my life in a way.”

And yet, despite his Bruce Lee fandom, Tropper still had reservations. Having recently completed his time as showrunner on four seasons of Banshee, he had reservations about working on what was, essentially, “someone else’s idea.”

“I just wasn’t sure if it would be a creatively fulfilling experience or not,” Tropper says. “But as soon as I read the pages, first of all, the world comes to light very clearly in those pages. I didn’t know anything about that time in history. I didn’t know what was going on in San Francisco. I didn’t know about the Chinese immigrant experience really. So I became fascinated by the material. The take that Justin and Shannon already had on it, which was a very modern or postmodern take about how to sort of subvert all the tropes of kung fu theater and really make this gritty, modern show that still honors what Bruce Lee was trying to do, it felt very natural and organic.”

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Of course, no matter how impressive its creative lineage, a nearly 50-year-old television treatment is going to present some problems when being adapted for modern audiences, especially in the age of cinematic cable dramas and peak TV.

“There were definitely some changes that needed to be made because the treatment was written for 1970s episodic TV,” Lee says, once again referring to Kung Fu’s structure of self-contained episodes. “My father’s treatment had certain elements of that as well. We definitely had to modernize it in terms of what audiences want to consume for TV nowadays. However, the essence of it, the time period, the fact that he was a warrior that came over rather than a monk, and the fact that this very purposefully took place in San Francisco of this time period right before the Chinese Exclusion Act is enacted and all of the sort of racial tension of that time… the bones of it are all there, but we definitely needed the brilliant mind of Jonathan Tropper to flesh that all out.”

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“When I first read the treatment, it was very obvious it was way ahead of its time,” Lin says. “It was very postmodern. It was influenced by Spaghetti Westerns, [Sergio] Leone, but also it had a lot of philosophy. It was very clear to me that … we had to somehow embrace it and hopefully kind of honor it and capture the essence of what it’s trying to achieve.”

Despite being a serialized cable drama, Warrior does take a brief detour to pay tribute to its ‘70s TV roots, with the series’ fifth episode departing from the main story to tell a standalone, and distinctly Western-flavored story.

“I would say the essence of it, not necessarily that exact set up, but definitely the essence of it [came from the treatment]” Lee says. “We wanted to have an episode where we traveled outside the world and we got to have that sort of Western feel of the time.”

Standalone episodes aside, Warrior is a recognizably modern cable drama, with plenty of (occasionally gruesome) action, a healthy dose of sex, and a conflicted heroic lead. Embodying the character Bruce Lee created as Andrew Koji as Ah Sahm, who arrives in San Francisco and quickly falls in with a gang of criminals and finds himself on the wrong side of an already prejudiced local law enforcement community.

“One of the tropes we really set out to subvert is the notion in a lot of kung fu movies where the hero is this very pure noble person who doesn’t make mistakes, who doesn’t have sex, who doesn’t get his hands too dirty,” Tropper says. “We wanted to create a very contemporary, complicated layered character. I think that was all in there, it was just a matter of adjusting to the tone of television in 2019 verses the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. So it tonally is a shift. But thematically and character wise, I don’t think we had to do too much that wasn’t already there.”

Finding a cast that could balance the rigors of fight choreography with actual acting was a priority for the producers.

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“I think historically when you look at martial arts genres, it’s always been relegated to kind of be lower budget, potentially exploitation kind of film level,” Lin says, “and that’s not something that we wanted to do. We wanted to build this the right way. And so when we were casting, I think sometimes there’s bad habits when it comes to process or expectations.” To break free of those expectations, the production “put out a wide net” and looked for individuals who were actors first, with the fighting skills as a bonus.  

“We looked for awhile, and there was no stone left unturned,” Lin says. “I think the traditional means of casting was a bit frustrating. I was very proud that we just kept pushing and pushing. I think as an Asian American, being in this business, I’m just proud that we just kept going, and I think it was important to create an opportunity and then try to go and find the right people to come and just kind of earn it and take it.”

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To their credit, series lead Andrew Koji never feels like he’s doing a Bruce Lee impression during his dramatic scenes, and is physically convincing enough to pull off the fight scenes. But Lee’s approach to martial arts was a philosophical as well as a physical pursuit. His famed Jeet Kune Do style was a hybrid of more traditional forms like Wing Chun and western boxing, but he didn’t develop it until the late 1960s, while Warrior takes place in the 1880s. And while historical accuracy might not be the first thing people look for in fighting styles on a show like this, it was still something the show took into consideration. Lin helped Tropper create an arc for the evolution of Ah Sahm’s fighting style over the course of the show’s 10 episodes, and then they worked with their stunt coordinator to bring it to life.

“We actually have a very experienced fight coordinator, Brett Chan, who not only is very familiar with Bruce Lee, but is very familiar with all the various styles of martial arts,” Tropper says. “We had a number of goals. One was that everyone in Chinatown doesn’t know Kung Fu. So right away you’re only going to have a handful of people who have actually studied Kung Fu. Everyone else are street brawlers, knife fighters, etc. We wanted Ah Sahm’s martial art to start out as a very pure form of Wing Chun, just like Bruce Lee’s did, and gradually evolve into something a little more street, which is kind of our version of what Jeet Kune Do was, to strip away some of the formality of it and make it a much more brutal and efficient form of fighting.”

“The thing that I love about Bruce Lee is that he was breaking down kind of what was traditional,” Lin says. “A lot of the rules that you learn becomes restrictions. And so I think the environment is important and it’s something that we wanted to design not only in Brett’s choreography, but in many ways, in the way Jonathan for writing it and the way we were going to shoot it, it was the environment and the characters that was around Assam was going to affect his style.”

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The racial tension and anti-immigrant sentiment that permeates virtually every scene in Warrior feels especially and unfortunately timely in the era of “build the wall” chants and an aggressively racist agenda being pushed from the highest levels of our government in the present day.

“We sort of got lucky in a bad way in that the political climate in America changed greatly while we were developing it,” Tropper says. “And the immigrant story and immigration in general became a really hot topic and something worth exploring again. But we were doing that prior to the election and prior to everything changing, it just now feels more relevant than ever.”

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With the arrival of Warrior on Cinemax, a great unfinished chapter in the life of a legend may finally be brought to a satisfying conclusion. Bruce Lee was a prolific writer, constantly taking notes and conceptualizing. Shannon Lee mentions, of course, Game of Death as one of her father’s great unfinished projects, as well as a treatment for a project known as Silent Flute, which she notes with some irony was filmed as Circle of Iron starring Kung Fu’s David Carradine, and that was apparently quite far from the original vision.

“My father was quite the creative mind and he was always trying to create a project that represented his culture, his art, and his philosophy,” she says. “And there are actually several treatments and even one full script all from his creative mind that we have in our archive…there are many treatments that I have of his that he wrote. Some are historical, some take place in the future, some are contemporary.”

Even 45 years after his death, Bruce Lee continues to inspire new works of art. If we’re lucky, Warrior might be only the first of Lee’s great lost works to see the light of day.  

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See more of our interview with Shannon Lee here!

And more of our interview with Justin Lin and Jonathan Tropper here!

Warrior premieres on Cinemax on April 5.

(special thanks to Craig Lines)

Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @wayoutstuff.