You Should be Watching Cinemax’s Warrior

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“I’m a Chinaman who’s never been to China. I was born in San Francisco, but I’m sure no fucking American. I don’t belong anywhere.”

Young Jun from Warrior

It is nearly impossible to describe how big an impact Bruce Lee had on the world of martial arts, martial arts movies, and action movies in general in a simple blog post. With just a handful of movies, most of which were really not that good and don’t hold up to the test of time, he solidified his iconic status as a martial arts superstar with name recognition that has lasted over 45 years past his death. But that stardom was hard to come by, especially in Hollywood. While getting moderate success in supporting roles, it would take him moving back to his childhood home of Hong Kong for him to have a leading role.

Hollywood in the late 60s and early 70s was not anywhere near as diverse an industry as today. And, frankly, it’s still not as diverse as it should be. But legend has it that Bruce Lee approached Warner Brothers with a pitch about a Chinese man coming to America during the late 1800s in the search for his sister. It would be a series that not only featured an Asian leading man, but would be a vehicle for him specifically and a showcase for martial arts. Warner Brothers and ABC declined, presumably with the excuse that Americans would not accept a Chinese leading man in a television show. ABC went on to produce Kung Fu, starring David Carradine.

Flash forward to 2019, and Cinemax, with the participation of his daughter, Shannon Lee, have finally brought us Bruce Lee’s original vision for a television series. Shannon Lee, Jonathan Tropper (Banshee) and Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 3-6, Star Trek Beyond) would join in producing the series Warrior that premiered this year on the premium cable channel. So let’s dive into a non-spoiler review of the first season of Warrior, and why you should be watching it.

When the first episode of Warrior opens, Ah Sahm (played by Andrew Koji) is literally fresh off the boat when he comes face to face with the bigotry of America, specifically San Francisco. He encounters a trio of abusive immigration officers, one of whom knocks a bowl of rice out of the hands of another immigrant. They mock him as he begins to pick up the rice from the ground. Ah Sahm intervenes, trying to save the man’s dignity no matter how starving he is.

That doesn’t go over well with the cops and it gives us our first glimpse of what’s to come. When Ah Sahm quickly dispatches the cops, and is recruited into one of the biggest Tong gangs in San Francisco, the Hop Wei.

This may be a show that takes place in a western setting, specifically post civil-war, but it feels modern — specially with the language, which is very generous in it’s usage of the f-word. The almost all Asian cast exist in a Western setting that is more like Deadwood, than Gunsmoke. The costuming is almost contemporary. And it may be a small thing for some, but much of the Asian characters forego wearing the traditional queue pigtail of the period. This is significant in that the queue was actually a hairstyle imposed by the conquering Manchus to demean the Han Chinese and if one were to cut off or remove it, they were never allowed back in their country or face a death sentence.

As much as a disappointment as the final season of Game of Thrones was to me (I’m definitely working on that article), the first season of Warrior exceeds expectations. From the first episode, we are given the racial and political layout of San Francisco. There is tension between the different Tong gangs with gambling, prostitution and especially opium. There is huge tension between the Irish workers and the Chinese laborers, who they believe are stealing their jobs. And then there is a corrupt police department barely able to contain the brewing powder-keg of tension ready to explode.

Since this is based on the writings of Bruce Lee, the series is also meant to be a showcase for martial arts action. If you have watched the AMC series Into the Badlands, you will know that the martial arts in that show is it’s main selling point. But that choreography purposely goes for the more stylized wire effects and near fantasy versions of fighting. Warrior presents its fights not just in a more grounded style, foregoing what Lee used to call “that classical mess,” it can get downright brutal. You won’t see any fancy flourishes or set forms and moves that were staples of 70s era martial arts epics. You certainly won’t see gravity defying wire-work. What you will get is hard hitting grounded martial arts pioneered by Bruce Lee and seen in contemporary martial arts action films.

There is quite a stable of talented martial arts actors in the show besides the main star Andrew Koji. Jason Tobin plays Young Jun, the son of the chief Hop Wei Tong. As far as gangster performances are concerned, he is the Tong’s Sonny Corleone. Rich Ting is appropriately intimidating and lethal as “Bolo,” who is considered the Hop Wei’s best fighter. Joe Taslim, who has proven himself a dynamic martial artist in films like, The Raid: Redemption, and The Night Comes for Us, plays Li Yong, an enforcer for rival tong, the Long Zi.

On top of the top-notch action and exceptional performances lies timely and topical themes about the immigrant experience. Chinese are shunned by the white American populace. They are treated as others, uncivilized, bringing crime and disease to America, as well as taking jobs away from Americans. If this sounds familiar it is purposely so. It is an obvious commentary on the how immigrants are perceived today. And towards the end of the season, there is talks of the beginnings of infamously racist Chinese Exclusion Act.

The show is pretty much serialized but with perhaps the one exception of what could be considered filler. Yet, it is a spectacular filler. “The Blood and the Shit” is a straight up homage to classic western tropes and borrows heavily from Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight. The episode takes Ah Sahm and Young Jun out of their regular element of the “blood and shit” (as Young Jun describes it) of San Francisco to Nevada as they are transporting the corpse and coffin of a Hop Wei relative. The coach driver has to make a stop at a saloon in the middle of the desert so that the horse may rest up. Besides putting up with racist remarks from fellow coach passengers, they end up having to fend off a gang of robbers. The episodes serves also to solidify the bonds of friendship that Ah Sahm and Young Jun have. But for me it is the most straight up fun of the season.

The show plays a little loose with some historical accuracy. But the tong wars were indeed real, and they were incredibly violent. The names of the gangs are different for sure. As a native San Franciscan and American born Chinese I’m a little familiar with some of those Tong names, as they are still on buildings to this day.

Although it may be confusing at times, Andrew Koji’s Ah Sahm character is the only one that speaks perfect English because his grandfather was American. Though the entire Asian cast speaks English, it only within their points of view each other. So sometimes you may here them speaking accented English in front of non-Chinese or Cantonese.

Warrior, with its hip storytelling style and willingness to take on the western genre and  tell it from the viewpoint of a marginalized and many times forgotten people that helped build this country, is unique, thought provoking, and without a doubt entertaining. It has already been renewed for a second season. I’ll be looking forward to that and highly recommend checking this first season out.

Update

I know I have been remise in mentioning the women of Warrior. I’ll try to go over them without spoiling anything, since the core of their characters play against type. Olivia Cheng play Ah Toy, a madam of a local brothel who is much more than what most people see on the surface. Dianne Doan plays a character that walks a line between the world of power plays within the Tongs and the local politicians. Joanna Vanderham plays the wife of San Francisco’s mayor, in a loveless marriage and one of the lone non-bigoted among the Americans. It goes beyond saying that they not only add to a cast of fine performances but their characters subvert stereotypes as well.

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John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Prepares for War

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Si vis pacem, para bellum. “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

I remember the first time I ever saw the movie The Killer and Hard Boiled. It was my first exposure to John Woo. After that, I kept seeking out not only more John Woo films like A Better Tomorrow, I was checking out all sorts of Hong Kong action movies with elaborate stunts and gun choreography.

As Hong Kong’s over the top action films started to decline (that’s a whole separate article there), it was countries like South Korea with high production values that appeared to take up the torch. And it certainly seemed like it, but in reality it would be countries like Thailand, led by instant star Tony Jaa, and Indonesia’s Raid films that would inject adrenaline into the modern martial arts action genre.

The following contains spoilers for John Wick 1 and 2

You can read my recap or watch Keanu Reeves cover the first two films in 60 seconds.

The Matrix films, starring Keanu Reeves, were clearly influenced and paid homage to the Hong Kong action films and anime. Those films were revolutionary with their mix of action and special effects. When the first John Wick (again starring Keanu Reeves) movie came along in 2014, it was not only a great action film, but it changed the way action films would look.  The John Wick films was an intense visual feast of grounded fight scenes and gunfights. It became a resounding success both critically and financially. The premise was simple, John Wick is a retired assassin who was living a normal life with his wife. But unfortunately she dies, and as her final gift to him she has a beagle puppy sent to him so that he would have someone to love. In what seems random, his house is broken into and they not only steal his ’69 Mustang, but kill his dog. And that is it, hell is unleashed on the gang and the gangsters that get in his way for revenge.

So it was inevitable that there would be a John Wick Chapter 2 which continued directly after the first one. It really was like a second chapter in a book. In this sequel though, after finally getting his car back from a chop-shop, he is approached by someone who has a marker on him. It is an unbreakable bond that he is obligated to fulfill. The second film expands upon the lore and mythos of the John Wick world. But by the end, after breaking one of the cardinal rules of assassins, he is rendered “excommunicado” with an open $14 million bounty on him.

On to John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

The third installment of the John Wick franchise has the daunting task of not only living up to the amazing action and stunts of the previous work but also topping it. It succeeds in this in glorious fashion in both fighting scenes and shootouts that come at you one after another, with each sequence being more jaw-dropping than the last.

Chapter 3 opens within an hour of the ending of Chapter 2 with John Wick on the run as every assassin in Manhattan is after him and the huge $14 million bounty on his head. So from the beginning we are thrust into the action. That action is near relentless as we go from one elaborate scene to another. There is an early scene within the first 20 minutes or so where Wick must fight off a horde of other assassins. (Seriously, that is not any sort of spoiler.) Unarmed, he finds himself using whatever weapons he has available, It just happens to be some sort of antique shop or museum full of knives.  But just before that is a great homage to a scene from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  Right away, the close quarter fight is brutal and raw – topping any other single set piece in the previous films. Look for a cameo by Tiger Hu Chen, good friend of Keanu Reeves, stuntman and assistant choreographer on the Matrix.

Now, the plot is there to not only serve the action but to expand on the lore of the Assassin’s world. It serves its purpose well — but to talk about it too much past the bare basics would spoil the film. With the price on his head, Wick looks for a way to get it lifted. To do so he must first speak to the man above the High Table, the organization that controls the assassins. Yeah, he has to speak to upper management.

Part of that journey involves a trip to Casablanca, Morocco where he will get some help from Sophia (Halle Barry), who just happens to owe Wick a marker herself. And Halle Barry not only adds additional star quality to an already loaded cast, but joins in on the gunplay action.

In the previous films, John Wick was the lone man against many, but once Halle Barry’s Sofia comes along for the ride we realize he not only has star caliber allies but star enemies as well. In addition to the accomplished martial arts actor Tiger Hu Chen earlier is an appearance by a pair of actors from The Raid films, Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman who play a pair admiring killers in a two-on-one fight scene that involves a lot of breaking glass. But most fun to see of all is Mark Dacascos as the leader of a gang of modern shinobi that Wick faces in the final battle (Come on, you know there would be ninjas eventually). Mark Decascos has had a long career in martial arts roles including Cradle to the Grave and most notably Brotherhood of the Wolf, but some may recognize him as the current “Chairman” from Iron Chef America. His character serves as the main villain and provides a few bits of levity as well. Decascos’ prowess is very well displayed and he seems to be having the time of his life doing such intense action.

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In non combat roles, Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne reprise their respective roles from the previous installments. Hollywood legend, Anjelica Huston joins in to provide some back history to John Wick. And Jerome Flynn, best known as Bronn from Game of Thrones chews up a bit of scenery in his small role as a member of the High Table.

Lawrence Fishburne and Tiger Hu Chen are not the only Matrix alum to join Keanu Reeves. Look for a cameo by Randall Duk Kim who played the keymaker in the Matrix films to reprise his roll as the underworld’s go to doctor. Director Chad Stahelski not only served as martial arts stunt coordinator for the Matrix films, he was also Keanu Reeves’ stunt double. So this is nearly a family affair.

If I can lay any criticisms on the film it would be near the end in the last set of fight scenes. John Wick really should have died several times, but I guess out of professional courtesy or respect, he’s given a chance to get back on his feet on more than one occasion. But at this point in the franchise, he’s not just a guy anymore, he’s literally a bloody superhero.

A fourth chapter in the John Wick saga has already been announced, which is no surprise since the final scene before the credits roll provides the seeds for a sequel. How they could possibly continue to top the exciting action sequences from film to film is going to be the biggest mystery.

Some action films are generic. Some are outright forgettable. The John Wick films have not only been instant classics but each has been progressively outstanding in its action. This third chapter comes with the Highest Recommendation

Ninjas on motorcycles! Hell Yeah!