Warrior, Cinemax’s upcoming Tong Wars drama series from Fast & Furious‘ Justin Lin and Banshee co-creator Jonathan Tropper, has assembled an international cast, led by British actor Andrew Koji, and has tapped Assaf Bernstein (Netflix’s Fauda) to direct the pilot. The 10-episode series, inspired by the writings and work of martial arts icon Bruce Lee, is slated to begin production on Oct. 22 in Cape Town, South Africa.
Andrew Koji and Olivia Cheng
Warrior — the first homegrown tentpole series under Cinemax’s new programming direction emphasizing fun, often adrenalized shows — is a period crime drama set against the backdrop of the brutal Tong Wars in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 1800s.
The cast includes Andrew Koji 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; Olivia Cheng as Ah Toy, Chinatown’s most accomplished courtesan and madame; Jason Tobin as Young Jun, the hard-partying son of a powerful tong boss; 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; Kieran Bew as Officer “Big Bill” O’Hara, a hard-drinking Irish cop charged with forming a Chinatown squad; and Dean Jagger as Dan Leary, the unofficial godfather of the Irish community of San Francisco and leader of the Workingmen’s party.
Also cast are Joanna Vanderham as Penelope Blake, the aristocratic heir to a railroad fortune trapped in a loveless marriage to the mayor; Tom Weston-Jones as Richard Lee, a transplanted Southerner and rookie cop; Banshee and Outcast‘s Hoon Lee as Wang Chao, a wiley fixer and profiteer in Chinatown; Joe Taslim as Li Yong, a tong Lieutenant and kung fu master; Langley Kirkwood as Walter Buckley, a Civil War veteran and Deputy Mayor with his own political aspirations; Christian McKay as Mayor Samuel Blake, the Mayor of San Francisco; 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.”
Taslim and Tobin previously co-starred in two of the Lin-directed Fast & Furious movies: Fast & Furious 6 (Taslim) and The Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift (Tobin).
Tropper wrote the pilot script based on original material written by Bruce Lee. He is executive producing via his Tropper Ink Prods. alongside Lin and Danielle Woodrow of Perfect Storm Entertainment and Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee via Bruce Lee Entertainment.
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.”
While there haven’t been TV series about the infamous Chinese mob wars over the opium, prostitution, and gambling trades, there are now two in the works. Amazon recently gave a straight-to-series order to Tong Wars, from filmmaker Wong Kar-wai and writer Paul Attanasio, also set against the Tong Wars of 19th century San Francisco.
Warrior pre-dates Tong Wars — it was first set up at Cinemax for development in May 2015. I hear Tong Wars was taken to HBO/Cinemax, which declined to read the script as the Warrior pilot already had been written. The rival project was then quickly shopped and sold to Amazon. Warrior is far ahead, with filming starting next week. I also hear the two shows are quite different in tone, with Tong Wars more of a traditional premium TV drama, and Warrior more in the vein of Banshee, an entertaining genre show, which, like Bruce Lee’s movies, mixes martial arts and humor.
Warrior has an interesting backstory that sheds light on the “correcting wrong” comment Lin made earlier.
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.
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.”
How much of Lee’s original treatment made it into Warrior? “It’s our job to find the essence of what he was trying to say,” Lin said. “The character of Sahm, a lot of the stuff is based off what Bruce Lee wanted way back when he came up with the idea.”
Lin says that one of his “heartaches” was that his schedule did not allow him to direct the Warrior pilot episode. “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.
Lin, who will be on set for most of the pilot, called the sets for the show “phenomenal, some of the biggest sets I’ve been involved with.”
No premiere date for Warrior has been set, but it’s expected to launch in late 2018/early 2019.
Bernstein recently wrapped film Look Away, starring Jason Isaacs, Mira Sorvino and India Eisley. He is repped by WME, Primary Wave and Reder & Feig.