Martial Reviews: Warrior (Cinemax TV Series)

Inspired by an unsold concept by Bruce Lee, Warrior is an action-packed, well-written martial arts television series starring talented actors… that I couldn’t enjoy no matter how hard I tried. On paper, this series has everything I love: top notch action and choreography, witty dialogue, and dramatic tension based on real historical events. In practice, I just found the show to be too unpleasant to enjoy.

Set in 1870s San Francisco, Warrior is a show that deals with racial tension related to immigration. This is a timeless theme that resonates, and sets up plenty of potential stories. The protagonist is a martial artist from China who’s come to San Francisco to find his missing sister. He’s a classic Bruce Lee “defiant underdog” type, whose confidence quickly gets him in over his head and involved with one of the major factions in the city. That’s where things get interesting as there are so many factions in play here. The series is not just about the conflicts between Chinese immigrants and white Americans, but about conflicts among the Chinese people themselves and among the white Americans as well. With all these factions, alliances, and betrayals, this show can fill several hours with intrigue alone.

Thankfully the writers are up to the task of delivering on this drama-rich premise. The dialogue is witty and in an interesting twist: modern. Rather than speak in a period appropriate way, the show is written with modern slang, profanity, and humor. I can see how this could be a hit or miss for different people, but I enjoyed it and found that it made the show approachable.

I’m sure the natural dialogue helped the actors as well. There’s an almost Tarantino or Joss Whedon style rhythm and wit to the writing, which makes even the most dialogue-intensive scenes feel quick and punchy. The setting, writing, and acting on this show are all top notch.

So if I’m writing such glowing things about the show, why didn’t I like it? Ironically enough, the action.

This is both my favorite, and least favorite part of the show. The choreography is impressive featuring fight scenes both fast and deadly. I much prefer this style of action where a hit seems to actually hurt the person who’s been hit. Too often fight scenes go on way too long and each strike seems like it’s delivered with the force of a tap on the shoulder (I’m looking at you Ip Man). Here, everything is fierce and deadly with each blow having noticeable consequences. While it is a little less lethal and a little more flashy than the infamous “bone-breaking” scene from Tony Jaa’s The Protector, the fight scenes here have that same visceral feel. Peppered throughout there are little nods to Bruce Lee’s signature movements and sounds (which can either be nostalgia-inducing or take you out of the moment – your mileage may vary).

So why is the action also my least favorite part? The gruesome details of violent crimes are displayed clear as day, in graphic detail. Like a lot of martial artists, I have a complicated opinion regarding violence in media. I train for self-defense and I don’t like violence, but I still love a movie where the “good guy” defeats the “bad guy” through his training, dedication, and willpower. I understand that real violence is messy, and that violence done by hatchet is more realistically portrayed in Warrior than it was in Kung Fu Hustle, but I also know which one I’d rather have to look at. I love a classic Jackie Chan movie, and I even enjoy the John Wick movies, but the gory details shown in Warrior go past the point where I can enjoy it.

Because this show considers itself a crime drama in addition to being a period martial arts piece, the gore is front and center. One of my least favorite scenes involved the police investigating a murder scene. The nighttime murder was disturbing enough to watch, but the cold analysis in the harsh light of day in the next scene was even more unpleasant.

After I watched the first episode, my reaction was “that was really good, but a little too gory and violent for me. I’ll keep watching though.” After each subsequent episode, the joy of seeing a high-quality martial arts series faded, and my aversion to seeing gruesome, violent crime increased. Despite that, I don’t wish this show was squeaky clean and edited down excessively. This show would be ruined if it was made into a “network friendly” version. That being said, the level of violence in Warrior at times makes Into the Badlands look like the bloodless PG-13 action of the Marvel movies.

Would I recommend this show? It all depends on your tolerance for gruesome violence. For me, Warrior is a great show with one glaring deal-breaker.

Warrior was created by Jonathan Tropper and Justin Lin based on the writings of Bruce Lee. Season 1 aired on Cinemax and has been renewed for a second season at the time of this writing.

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