This Warrior review contains spoilers.
Warrior Season 2 Episode 2
When Warrior was first announced, Bruce Lee fans were worried that this was going to be just another Bruceploitation. After all, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Bruceploitation flicks. Bruce Lee is the most impersonated icon on the planet. No one needed to see another weak caricature of the Little Dragon, even if it was on Cinemax.
However, Warrior isn’t Bruceploitation at all. The creator and writer of the show, Jonathan Tropper, credits Bruce’s daughter, Shannon Lee for making sure that Warrior didn’t go “overboard with the Bruce Lee stuff.”
Instead of Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) doing yet another Bruce Lee imitation, there are sequences in his fight choreography that reference timeless scenes from the Little Dragon’s films. There are also clever Easter Eggs throughout the show, like the character names O’Hara (Kieran Biew) and last season’s Bolo (Rich Ting). Both O’Hara and Bolo are the names of villains in Enter the Dragon however these characters are completely different in Warrior.
This gives this episode title that extra ‘Wataaah!’ of excitement because The Chinese Connection was an alternate title for Bruce’s second major Kung Fu film, Fist of Fury. The closest Easter Egg title of Season 1 was episode 9, “Chinese Boxing.” Every Bruce fan remembers Ah Gung (Chin Ti) saying “Chinese Boxing!” as he pointed at Bruce and gave him the thumbs up. For this episode to take on the name of one of Bruce’s most beloved films, it had better deliver. And it does, especially with the most important facet of Warrior, the Kung Fu fighting.
Young Jun Gets Stabby
The first fight of this episode is a showcase for Young Jun (Jason Tobin). In their quest for cheaper product, Ah Sahm hooks Young Jun up with a new molasses connection through his fight manager Vega (Maria Elena-Lass). They visit Happy Jack (Nat Rambulana), an African drug dealer. There’s some historical basis to this. During the period when Warrior is set, there were attempts to produce opium in South Africa to undermine the British dominance of the global opium trade.
Opium was weaponized by the British as part of its strategy to establish colonial rule. This was largely controlled by the nefarious East India Company that smuggled opium from India, mostly to cripple China’s port cities. In Chinese coastal provinces during the mid 1830’s, it was estimated that 90% of the adult Chinese population were opium addicts. In San Francisco, opium was still legal and taxable until 1889 when local ordinances restricted it to medical use only. But beyond the nod to history, Rambulana is a South African TV star and Warrior was filmed in South Africa, so his appearance works on several levels.
The deal with Happy Jack goes sour. This elicits a lovely bit of ultraviolence in which Tobin delivers a solid long take sequence. Long takes are the hallmark of good fight choreography because each movement increases the challenge exponentially. It’s a good showcase for Tobin’s Kung Fu and he sells his slice and dice attacks with a convincing ferocity.
Tobin has appeared in a few martial arts themed films before such as Beverly Hill Ninja, Rob-B-Hood, and House of Fury, but he’s most known for his other projects with Warrior’s producer Justin Lin including Better Luck Tomorrow and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Tobin is reprising his Tokyo Drift character in Lin’s upcoming F9, due out next year. In Warrior, Tobin nails the tough punk qualities of Young Jun perfectly. As the son of the leader of the Hop Wei, he’s been entitled yet he’s still eager to prove himself. His viciousness in battle is spot on.
For martial arts fans, there’s a subtle yet significant correction in Young Jun’s dagger play from Season 1. In episode 6 “Chewed Up, Spit Out, and Stepped On,” Young Jun deploys a conventional forward knife grip where the blade is on the thumb side of the hand. Double daggers like Young Jun wields are a common weapon in Kung Fu, however they are almost always used with a reverse grip where the blade is on the pinky finger side of the hand, more like an ice pick.
In the fight with Happy Jack’s squad, Young Jun deploys the more proper ice pick grip. It’s a trivial detail but given that Warrior is catering to the Kung Fu fandom, it’s important to get this right.
The fight ensues after Happy Jack refuses to store the opium, leaving Young Jun and Ah Sahm in the lurch. Later, Penny (Joanna Vanderham) hires the Hop Wei to protect her coolie workers from the Irish, and Ah Sahm takes advantage of the situation to secretly store the opium at Mercer Steel. It’s not hard to project how this will turn out in upcoming episodes and adds even more tension to the relationship of Ah Sahm and Penny.
Blue Lives Matter
The Season 2 premiere left Chinatown in a bloody mess. Ah Sahm, Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng) and Lai (Jenny Umbhau) chopped up the racist Teddy Boys and Leary (Dean Jagger) blew up a factory that employed coolies. Chinatown is a tough beat for SF cops and O’Hara and Lee (Tom Weston-Jones) have a ton of work cleaning up.
They’re investigating the sword killings and the explosion while O’Hara wrestles with his obligation to the Fung Hai Tong and Zing (Dustin Nguyen) and Lee struggles with his growing laudanum addiction. O’Hara’s wife Lucy (Emily Child) grows more suspicious of her husband’s dealing and after a binge, Lee wakes up in a piss-soaked alley just as it is getting a fresh drenching. This episode’s title comes from Lee. After the partners question Patterson (Frank Rautenbach), Lee says to O’Hara that he’s trying to find ‘the Chinese connection’ in the sword killings.
O’Hara and Lee form a stereotypic police partner ‘buddy’ relationship: the old, jaded cop who is tainted by a corrupt system and the young brilliant detective who is too cocky to get along with the rest of the department. In their heart of hearts, they both want to be good cops, but their world is too dirty to stay clean. Biew gives his character a lot of soul as a father and husband just trying to do right by his family. Lee’s backstory is hinted at when he begins his laudanum binge, but his haunted past is still unclear.
The repercussions of killings and the explosion result in the SFPD being lambasted at a political rally along with Mayor Blake (Christian McKay). Here, the parallels between the political climate of Warrior and America right now are disturbingly uncanny, especially because this was filmed a year prior. When the crowd starts chanting ‘Send them back,’ it is echoed by some of the rising anti-China sentiment today. The Exclusion Act comes up, foreshadowing worse times to come. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by congress and signed into law by President Arthur in 1882, so this provides some indication of where Warrior is set in time.
Martial Melodrama and the Moonlight Sonata
Sophie (Celine Buckens) meets Leary at the rally, and they go to Leary’s place, the Banshee. She reveals to Leary that she’s Mercer’s daughter and while flirting with him, plays Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the pub piano. It sets up a poignant musical interlude at the end of the episode, so typical of television shows nowadays, where a tune is laid over all the characters as they ruminate over their various complicated circumstances.
The Moonlight Sonata is a melodramatic choice, and at the end it drifts into Warrior’s heavy guitar riffs. This feels a little overdone – the show leans too heavily on those guitar riffs – but Warrior redeems itself musically with its end credit Chinese raps, which have been solid throughout the entire show.
The other ladies of Warrior continue with this season’s fashion show. When Mai Ling (Dianne Doan) hires the ex-Pinkerton man Nichols (Emmanuel Castis) to spy on Buckley (Langley Kirkwood), she’s wearing a luxuriant deep blue hooded robe and strange vambrace rings. She looks more like someone out of Game of Thrones than SF Chinatown. And Ah Toy appears later in a resplendent emerald gown with a flared collar more befitting of a Vulcan bride than a whorehouse madame.
But Warrior is a fantasy so the costume designers can be forgiven of indulging their leading ladies. As ridiculous and incongruous as these outfits appear when all the other characters are in period dress, Doan and Cheng fill out these outfits beautifully and are lieterally dressed to kill. They’re too busy looking good.
Another new character is introduced in this episode. Enter Nellie Davenport (Miranda Raison), a wealthy widow committed to rescuing Chinese women from prostitution and exploitation. Davenport is the first character based directly upon a real historic figure, although plenty of artistic liberties have been taken with how she is depicted. The forthcoming interaction between her and Ah Toy is promising. Both Ah Toy and Davenport are strong women and given their principles and position, they are sure to go head-to-head in upcoming episodes.
Back to the Action
The finale fight in this episode is worth the wait. Mai Ling dispatches Li Yong (Joe Taslim) and Zing to stop a small time Tong from encroaching on the Long Zii’s opium business. Li Yong settles things peacefully, but Zing (Dustin Nguyen) is ready to pick a fight, and mayhem breaks out when he slashes the Tong leader’s throat. Taslim and Nguyen are the veteran martial artists on Warrior. Any fight scene that features their work delivers the level of masterful choreography one would expect from a show attached to Bruce Lee.
Nguyen is remembered for his leading role as Harry Ioki on 21 Jump Street. Over the years, he’s appeared in several martial arts related Hollywood productions like 2 Ninjas Kick Back, Vanishing Son and Justin Lin’s mockumentary Finishing the Game.
However, he truly established himself as a martial arts star after he returned to his homeland, Vietnam. There he made a series of Vietnamese martial arts films: The Rebel, and Once Upon a Time in Vietnam. These films put Vietnam on the martial arts movie map. Solidly paced with brilliant choreography, they demonstrated that Nguyen is a force to be reckoned with and a serious practitioner of the martial arts.
He is credited as studying Muay Thai, Taekwondo and Bruce Lee’s creation Jeet Kune Do, but where he really shines is with the indigenous Vietnamese martial art called Vovinam. This style of fighting was seldom seen outside the country until Nguyen showcased it in his films. It gave him an extra stylistic edge in the martial arts genre. As Zing, Nguyen’s choreography is ruthless, befitting of the most villainous Tong leader in Warrior.
Taslim is Indonesian and studied Wushu and Taekwondo. He is a decorated Judo champion who represented Indonesia in world competitions from 1997 to 2007 as a member of the national team. He medaled in two major Southeast Asian competitions and captured the gold in the national games.
Taslim appeared in the groundbreaking Indonesian film The Raid, which raised the bar on cinematic ultraviolence. That film also introduced Silat masters Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, who have been dominating action films in recent years with appearances in films like Mile 22 and Stuber for Uwais and John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum and Wira for Ruhian. They even had a quick cameo together in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Following The Raid and its sequel, The Raid II, Taslim has appeared in Fast & Furious 6 and Star Trek Beyond.
It’s no mistake that Li Yong was set up as the ultimate rival for Ah Sahm last season. Taslim is not just another stuntman throwing haymakers. He is at the top of his game choreographically and every in every fight scene he appears in has a crisp precision that can only be achieved by a veteran martial arts master. He moves with style and grace, doling out the damage with a sophisticated flair that Warrior demands. With Ah Sahm’s defeat at Li Yong’s hands in what was arguably the best fight scene in last season, Season 2 is all about that rematch.
Warrior Season 2 can be seen exclusively on CINEMAX.