Among many of the film, TV and independent projects I’ve followed up on, one stood out as something worth following in its early days as I had known of the folks working on its action for its director, Charlie Dennis. Fast forward three Winters later and we were introduced to the world of gritty martial arts short, Deep Pan Fury, with UK actor Andrew Koji, whose extensive TV and film acting and stunt credits include 2007 Muay Thai flick, Fighting Beat, Justin Lin’s Furious 6 and as the voice of Hien in Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood.
Conclusively, I couldn’t be more proud of Koji this week, and that brings us to the longstanding developments of Cinemax’s upcoming ten-episode martial arts drama, Warrior which is set to go before cameras in South Africa on October 22. Netflix series Fauda helmer Assaf Bernstein is directing from a script by Banshee creator Jonathan Tropper, in turn inspired by the unproduced work of late martial artist multihyphenate, entertainer and film legend Bruce Lee, and has since been shepherded by daughter Shannon Lee, founder and CEO of Bruce Lee Enterprises. Lee is executive producing as will Tropper via his Tropper Ink Productions banner, and Lin along with Danielle Woodrow hailing from Perfect Storm Entertainment.
As the ins and outs of Deadline‘s latest report on Wednesday has it, Warrior marks as the network’s first homegrown tentpole series under its new programming direction emphasizing fun, often adrenalized shows. A crime drama set against the backdrop of the brutal Tong Wars in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 1800s, Koji leads the cast as Ah Sahm, a martial arts prodigy who travels from China to San Francisco and ends up becoming a hatchet man for the most powerful tong in Chinatown. Actress Olivia Cheng, who graced the set of Netflix series Marco Polo as one of the most badass and lethal femme fatales of the show joins in as Ah Toy, Chinatown’s most accomplished courtesan and madame.
Further cast is The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift co-star and Jasmine star, actor Jason Tobin who will play Young Jun, the hard-partying son of a powerful tong boss; actress Dianne Doan as Mai Ling, a beautiful and ruthless Chinese woman who, through sheer force of will, has achieved a position of power in one of the tongs; actor Kieran Bew as Officer “Big Bill” O’Hara, a hard-drinking Irish cop charged with forming a Chinatown squad; and actor Dean Jagger (Game Of Thrones) as Dan Leary, the unofficial godfather of the Irish community of San Francisco and leader of the Workingmen’s party.
Going down the roster, we have actress Joanna Vanderham who is set to play Penelope Blake, the aristocratic heir to a railroad fortune, trapped in a loveless marriage to San Francisco mayor Samuel Blake – to be played by actor Christian McKay; and actor Tom Weston-Jones as Richard Lee, a transplanted Southerner and rookie cop. Also starring is Hoon Lee of Banshee and Outcast fame as Wang Chao, a wiley fixer and profiteer in Chinatown; the mighty addition of The Raid, Furious 6 and upcoming The Night Comes For Us star, actor Joe Taslim as Li Yong, a tong Lieutenant and kung fu master; fellow Banshee alum Langley Kirkwood as Walter Buckley, a civil war veteran and Deputy Mayor with his own political aspirations; and Perry Yung as Father Jun, the leader of the most powerful tong in Chinatown.
“As Warrior comes together, I can’t help but feel the pride of correcting a wrong and helping bring Bruce Lee’s dream project to life,” Lin said. “We have assembled a cast of incredible actors from all over the world including our talented lead, Andrew Koji, an exciting discovery out of the UK. I’m also thrilled to be re-teaming with Joe Taslim and Jason Tobin.
Kary Antholis, president, HBO Miniseries and Cinemax Programming, called Warrior “one of the most exciting pilots I’d read in a very long time. “It is perfectly on brand with what Cinemax wants to do going forward — high-end action-packed drama with great characters. It is unlike anything you’ve seen on episodic television ever.” Asked to elaborate, Antholis said that “the combination of a fun martial-arts show, which leans into Asian characters that are developed with great depth is a very unique combination in my experience with the TV landscape.”
Added Lin, “The martial arts genre a lot of times has been relegated to B-level action. And that’s not something we wanted to do. Going off of Bruce Lee’s original material, we wanted to build something that is character-driven, that has important themes and that also takes place in a part of American history that rarely gets talked about. That to me makes it something you haven’t seen before.”
The show comes in the wake of a completely seperate series in the works titled Tong Wars which recently got a straight-to-series order for Amazon from filmmaker Wong Kar-wai and writer Paul Attanasio, set in the same era, but with a far different tone compared to Warrior.
Deadline’s coverage further details into the history of the show’s inception and mystery regarding of its existence.
Lin recalled “growing up as an Asian American, and hearing the story behind Bruce Lee and the relationship to David Carradine’s Kung Fu”. For years, there had been rumblings that Lee had had a concept for a TV series — coincidentally (or not) called The Warrior, according to Lee’s widow Linda Lee Cadwell — that would’ve featured Lee as an Asian hero in the American West. The version of events that has been widely circulated (but never fully confirmed) is that the studios did not think viewers would embrace an Asian leading man, and Kung Fu was ultimately created with Carradine as the star.
It was Lin’s producing partner Woodrow who asked him whether the Lee TV series pitch was real or an urban legend. To get an answer, the two reached out to Lee’s daughter Shannon, who confirmed that an 8-page treatment by Lee existed and showed it to them. “That’s how this project came to life,” Lin said. He added that Shannon Lee has boxes and boxes containing writings by her late father.
The report also goes into how Tropper’s involvement became something much more opportune than noticed, tapping into his own martial arts background and affinity for Bruce Lee’s work:
When Lin, Woodrow and Lee pitched the idea for Warrior to HBO/Cinemax, “we talked about the aspirations of combining really well developed characters with an action-oriented show,” Antholis said. “We had the idea of bringing in Jonathan Tropper based on the work he did on Banshee not knowing that he is a black belt in karate and idolized Bruce Lee as a kid. He fit right in.”
Among other anecdotes, Lin, who intially wanted to direct the pilot but won’t due to scheduling, addressed the show’s sets as “phenomenal, some of the biggest sets I’ve been involved with.”. He also spoke highly of Bernstein, adding the following:
“It was very important to Kary, to Jonathan and me that we find a filmmaker, someone that comes and develops everything with character-first,” he said. “We are so fortunate to have Assaf Bernstein, a director who will capture the most intimate and textured performances amidst the action-packed backdrop of our series.” Bernstein also executive produces.
Warrior is coming in late 2018 or possible early 2019.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.