Warrior Episode 1 Review: The Itchy Onion

Warrior, Bruce Lee's dream TV series, finally hits the airwaves but it's still a work in progress.

This Warrior review contains spoilers.

Warrior Episode 1

Warrior is a fun show, with plenty of stunts and shocks to amaze us with — eventually. It’s hard to tell that though from the pilot episode, “Itchy Onion”, which promises such greatness yet refuses to deliver it up front.

If this sounds harsh, I apologize. I guess I was hyped up to watch Warrior, and when I did, I realized the show wasn’t what I imagined. I was expecting elaborate martial arts stunt choreography against the backdrop of hip-hop beats and inspiring violin samples. Instead, I got a period piece sex dramedy with a couple of fistfights scored by Nickelback.

In other words, I wanted Shaw Brothers, but I got Farrelly instead. And I am deeply confused by that.

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Yes, I’m exaggerating a little. Warrior isn’t nearly as over the top as a feel-good sex comedy, but it doesn’t take itself as seriously as a martial arts epic should, either. That’s why “Itchy Onion” caught me off guard. It’s all over the place, tonally speaking, yet it has a sense of confidence that makes you believe it will figure things out eventually.

If any area of Warrior needs the most work, it’s the dialogue. It just doesn’t feel authentic yet. 85% of the lines are overloaded with cuss words, racial slurs, and sex references. It feels so staged you can tell the cast had a hard time delivering it.

I mean, I don’t think anyone would ever say some of these lines out loud, especially in 19th century San Francisco. Do you? Here’s an example.

“I may be fresh, but I know when I’ve been f**ked.”

“You got f**ked because you spoke your business in a room full of wh*res. This is not China, this is Chinatown and our blood is cheap here, so you better learn to adapt.”

Yeah. This is exactly the kind of dialogue Bruce Lee included in his pitch presentation to major networks back in 1971, I’m sure. Are the actors supposed to be reading aloud the subtitled English translation of their dialogue? If so, that would explain moments like this, which feel awkward, excessive, and a bit clunky.

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read more: Warrior and the Legacy of Bruce Lee

Listen: I’m not saying we should shy away from boobies and f-bombs in a Cinemax show. I’m saying we shouldn’t make it feel this shoehorned in. It’s like there’s always some exec sitting off-screen filling out a spreadsheet, making sure Warrior meets its quota for adult content. It’s exhausting, especially since we get the impression that it’s only there to pad things out.

Which is why I think this show would ruffle Bruce Lee’s feathers if he were around today (and actually, y’know, had feathers.) I think he wanted to give the world a platform to showcase the philosophical and spiritual lessons of martial arts, not a “dark and gritty” show about people smoking dope in brothels and kicking each other in the face every ten minutes. That’s too Western an approach to take, and one that seems to miss the point of martial arts entirely. But that’s just my two cents, and it’s worth about as much as it sounds in this case.

So, then. What works about Warrior? The cast is great. Although I can’t say that I’ve grown attached to any of the characters over the course of “Itchy Onion”, including our hero Ah Sahm (played by the awesome Andrew Koji), their performances are relaxed yet sharp enough to sell it. The lines they’re given are tricky ones to pull off and they do their best to make their inflection match the emotions behind each beat. The cinematography is also top notch. And speaking as someone who lives in San Francisco, I find the setting quite appealing. 

But I’m not hooked yet. I guess reviewing AMC’s Into the Badlands for the past four years has spoiled me. It’s made me expect a lot from a martial arts action program. Warrior has a lot to live up to in that regard…and I’m not saying it won’t. Ah Sahm’s journey is just beginning, and I have faith it will be quite the memorable one.

Stephen Harber writes the Batman/Doctor Who Adventures, a fanmade webcomic. Read more of his work here, and follow him on Instagram @onlywriterever.

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2.5 out of 5