I’ll say this much for Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins: while not garnering the best reviews (it currently sits at 41% on Rotten Tomatoes), it at least had the good sense to stack its cast with excellent martial arts performers. In addition to The Raid and The Night Comes for Us alum Iko Uwais, the movie also provides a big-screen breakthrough for Andrew Koji who plays Tommy, the ally-turned-eventual adversary of Henry Golding’s protagonist.
If Koji’s name isn’t immediately recognizable, let this be your opportunity to fix that. He’s the star of Warrior, a martial arts western series based on an idea by Bruce Lee, and finally realized by Lee’s daughter Shannon and executive producers Jonathan Tropper and Justin Lin. HBO Max acquired the show from Cinemax last year, and renewed it for a third season in April. Whether Snake Eyes made you hungry for more action or left you wanting something better, there’s no time like the present to make this your next big binge.
Warrior takes place during San Francisco’s Tong Wars, a series of violent disputes between rival Chinese immigrant gangs in the late 19th Century. The show also covers Chinatown’s contentious relationship with the city’s Irish immigrant population, and everyone’s problems with San Francisco’s ruling class. Koji stars as Ah Sahm, who arrives in America looking for his estranged sister. He’s immediately picked up and inducted into the Hop Wei Tong, one of Chinatown’s most prominent factions. The sister he’s been searching for, Mai Ling (Dianne Doan), is part of the Long Zii Tong, the Hop Wei’s biggest rival. Ah Sahm uses his wits and insane fighting skills to work his way up through the ranks of the Hop Wei alongside Young Jun (Jason Tobin, recently seen shooting cars into space in F9), the son of the Tong’s leader.
At the same time, anti-Chinese sentiment in San Francisco is rising, thanks mostly to the city’s Irish immigrant population, who fear losing their jobs in favor of cheaper Chinese labor. The Irish community, headed up by bar owner/human boulder Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger), antagonizes the Chinese, while also spending money at their brothels and gambling parlors. The cops assigned to keep the Chinese immigrants safe don’t understand the community they’re policing, nor do they particularly care about their well-being. San Francisco’s mayor (Christian McKay) and his weaselly second-in-command (Langley Kirkwood) actively stir the pot with their own self-serving agendas.
Warrior contains a colorful, complicated ecosystem of hatchet men, cops, laborers, brothel owners, corrupt politicians and long-suffering wives. Ah Sahm, however, is the show’s charismatic, capable anchor. Koji gives him Clint Eastwood terseness, mixed with Bruce Lee’s showmanship and a dark sense of humor. This is a more complicated and nuanced take on the traditional martial arts hero (not to mention fun as hell), and Koji’s performance is so consistently impressive that it seems wildly unfair that it’s taken so long for him to show up in a big studio movie role.
Koji is also bolstered by a solid ensemble; one of the many gifts Warrior gives its audience is a diverse cast in dynamic roles. Tobin’s Young Jun is a coiled spring of chaotic energy, both a great wingman and a complex character in his own right. Hoon Lee brings theatrical poise and cool detachment to weapons dealer Wang Chao, alternating allegiances with the subtlety of a dimmer switch while also navigating his own crisis of conscience. The Night Comes for Us and The Raid: Redemption’s Joe Taslim brings additional martial arts expertise to his role as Li Yong, a Long Zii lieutenant who squares off against Ah Sahm in perfectly matched battle.
Alongside the epic beat-downs, Warrior offers intelligent commentary on the motivations, experiences and prejudices that make up a community. The show’s second season (despite a slow, rocky start) digs deeper into those dynamics, eventually bringing the Chinese-Irish conflict to a pulse-pounding head. The show’s writers make it clear that despite their differences, the Irish and Chinese immigrant communities want the same things: respect, dignity, and a more prosperous future. The rich white folks in charge are the real enemy, happily exploiting those desires with business practices and racist policies that stoke anxieties and animosity among the impoverished working class.
While things occasionally get heavy, Warrior is still primarily interested in delivering an ass-kicking good time. The Season 1 episode “The Blood and the Shit” takes a break from the main storyline as Ah Sahm and Young Jun get stuck in a Nevada saloon being threatened by bandits. The pair deepen their bond and become old-west heroes for a day, complete with steeds and cowboy hats. The episode also delivers an expanded exploration of immigrant identity in addition to its perfectly-executed action sequences.
Season 2’s “To a Man With a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail” takes the boys to a border town, where Ah Sahm enters a Bloodsport -style fighting tournament overseen by an evil good-ol-boy rancher. The episode gives us a kaleidoscope of various fighting styles matched against each other, with thrillingly creative results. If you’ve ever wanted to watch Capoeira and Kung-Fu go head-to-head in the ring, this is your chance.
In addition to technical mastery, stunt choreographer Brett Chan works with the show’s performers to make sure the characters’ distinct fighting styles each communicate something about them. Ah Sahm, for instance, is efficient and practiced, but always suggesting a tidal wave of rage beneath that controlled exterior. Chinatown-born Young Jun is a street scrapper, using knives with ruthless speed and skill. Wide-eyed Hop Wei initiate Hong (Chen Tang) has the energy and eagerness of a little kid as he takes down his foes.
Warrior contains a balance of entertainment and substance that’s worth getting into and evangelizing about. It features a detailed world, and characters that are easy to get attached to and root for, mostly played by Asian and Asian-American actors. The show’s social politics are thoughtful and timely, and the action that is its reason for being is as well done as anything Hollywood is currently putting out. In short, it’s the best show you’re aren’t watching, and the one we should all be talking more about. Get on the train now, and join the faithful.
Warrior is now streaming on HBO Max.
Abby Olcese is an entertainment writer based in Kansas City. Her work has appeared at /Film, rogerebert.com, Crooked Marquee, Sojourners Magazine, and Think Christian. You can follow her adventures and pop culture obsessions at@abbyolcese.
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