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Bruce Lee's Legacy Endures in Cinemax's 'Warrior'

The hit Cinemax series Warrior, inspired by the writings of Bruce Lee, is just the latest example of the martial arts legend’s indomitable legacy.

Cinemax's new show 'Warrior' is a love letter to Bruce Lee.
Cinemax, Sunset Boulevard / Contributor

Close your eyes and picture it: San Francisco, 1878. Ah Sahm, a martial arts prodigy, steps off a boat from China, searching for his sister. One fateful fight later, he’s a suited-up Hop Wei hatchet man battling rival gangs in Chinatown’s infamous Tong Wars, scrapping with Irish cops, romancing fierce females, and generally kicking ass while grappling with socio-political issues (racism, immigration) still relevant today.

Sounds fresh, right? No wonder Bruce Lee dreamed it up 50 years ago.

No, really. Cinemax’s hit series Warrior emerged from a concept Lee originally had pitched in the early 1970s, and despite not seeing the light of day until April of this year, the show has been a sleeper hit with audiences and critics, already getting the green light for a second season. The way Warrior connects so profoundly in 2019 proves that Lee was, in the words of star Andrew Koji, “such a trailblazer in terms of progressive thinking.”

Perhaps even cooler is what Warrior can teach us about the man whose philosophy, fighting, and fitness were all far ahead of his time. It’s just more evidence that the legacy of this icon—who died at 32 of a cerebral edema—is as strong as ever.

THE LONG ROAD TO WARRIOR

The rebirth of Warrior—shunned by ’70s execs queasy about a Chinese leading man, just months before they green-lit Kung Fu, starring David freakin’ Carradine as a Shaolin monk in the Old West—dates back to 2000. That’s when Lee’s daughter, Shannon, uncovered some of her father’s long-forgotten writings. Years later, the president of the Bruce Lee Foundation teamed up with an intrigued Justin Lin, director of four Fast and Furious films, and Banshee creator Jonathan Tropper to develop the show.

“We had an eight-page treatment and some drafts, notes, and drawings,” Shannon Lee recalls. “We had to update and flesh out the world for modern audiences, but the bones of the project—the Tong Wars, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese American experience, these two worlds coming together and crashing—are really true to my father’s vision.”

Which makes sense, as the San Francisco-born, Hong Kong-raised Lee’s own life was a melting pot. At a time when the world was even more divided, he married American Linda Emery (now Linda Lee Cadwell). He also controversially taught martial arts to non-Chinese students, including Steve McQueen and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and bridged the gap between East and West with films like Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon.

“I forgot the exact quote he used, but it’s something about ‘we’re all brothers and sisters under the sun,’” says Tropper, himself a kung fu black belt and lifelong Lee fan. “What he did to break through racial barriers just proved it can be done—and should be done.”

RESPECTING THE LEGACY

Beyond the contemporary dialogue, evocative sets, and killer costumes, the show’s most striking aspect is stunt coordinator Brett Chan’s dynamic fight choreography. Tropper notes it takes days of shooting with multiple units to “make sure we get a really great fight” that Bruce Lee would relish.

Portraying lovable underdogs with outsized swagger, the 5'8" Lee pioneered realistic, street-style fighting, eschewing the flowery movements of flying swordsmen found in traditional Chinese costume dramas. He mastered Wing Chun kung fu and created Jeet Kune Do (“the way of the intercepting fist”), eventually embracing the “style of no style,” stressing flexibility, once telling an interviewer, “Be formless, shapeless, like water.”

“The sense of, if it works, use it, and hack away at the inessential, you can apply to anything,” Tropper observes. “Just figuring out what really works and making that your discipline.”

Serious Lee fans will spot charming homages in some of Ah Sahm’s actions, from cheeky head tilts and facial expressions to licking his own blood and comically sitting upon a felled opponent.

“As an actor, I don’t want to imitate,” says Koji, who trained at London’s Shaolin Temple UK as a youth. “But seeing how he moves and what he does in his fights, I try to implement some of those things in ways that work with the story.”

Tapping into that tenacity, Koji read up on Lee, watched his films, improved his diet, and trained for months before and after shooting the Warrior pilot in Cape Town, South Africa.

“What I took away is Bruce Lee’s whole attitude, what you can learn spiritually and emotionally through pushing yourself in a physical way and by developing discipline,” says the 32-year-old, who admits he was close to giving up acting before landing this life-changing role.

Of course, none of Bruce Lee’s onscreen magic was possible without the muscle to execute it, and with his own body, he was also quite forward thinking.

“[My father] spent easily a few hours a day training,” Shannon Lee recalls, “and I’ve heard stories from his students where he’d say, ‘Hey, look at my leg,’ and then he’d flex and this tiny little muscle would pop to the surface, and he’d be like, ‘I’ve been working on this.’”

An Enduring Influence

All these elements add up to a simply stunning show—and witnessing Ah Sahm’s trajectory imparts what is perhaps the most lasting effect of Bruce Lee’s short time on this earth: pure inspiration.

That’s surely something everyone—from Warrior’s cast and crew to the Wu-Tang Clan to a pint-size Japanese nunchaku wizard—can take away, but perhaps his daughter understands it best.

“My father was just a maven of style, of personal power, of personal expression and freedom,” Shannon Lee says. “The thing people hook into with him is a real sense of possibility, a sense that he did something truly amazing with his life, with a whole bunch of odds stacked against him—and that makes people believe that there’s a lot of possibility for themselves, honestly.”

If that’s not a warrior we should all seek to emulate, then who is?

Warrior airs on Fridays at 10 p.m. on Cinemax, and you can catch up on the previous episodes with the MAX GO streaming app.

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