By Adriaan Odendaal | 23 September 2018
Filmed exclusively in Cape Town, South Africa, the first season of HBO Cinemax’s Warrior comes in April 2019, based on an original long-lost idea by Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee gave much to the martial arts community before his death in 1973. In one of his private notebooks, there was the idea for a Kung Fu television series that he had sketched out, but which never saw the light of day. Until now.
Re-Discovering the Story Behind ‘Warrior’
HBO Cinemax’s Warrior is a 19th-century crime drama set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the brutal Tong Wars, a series of violent disputes beginning in the 1880s among rival Chinese criminal organizations in the USA. It came to a particularly violent crescendo in San Francisco.
The series follows Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), a young and gifted martial arts prodigy who emigrates from China to San Francisco. Upon arrival, he becomes embroiled in the eruptive conflict of the Tong Wars, quickly conscripted as a hatchet-man for one of the most powerful factions.
Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter and CEO of Bruce Lee Enterprises, brought her father’s private notebook containing the idea for Warrior to director Justin Lin, famous for helming the Fast and Furious franchise. Lin has great admiration for the legacy of Bruce Lee, and he directed a film about Lee in 2007 called Finishing the Game.
“When Shannon shared with us her father’s writings – rich with Lee’s unique philosophies on life, and through a point of view rarely depicted on screen – Executive Producer Danielle Woodrow and I knew that [Lin’s production company] Perfect Storm had to make it”, Lin said in a statement.
Johnathan Tropper, best known for creating the Cinemax series Banshee, quickly came on board as co-creator and executive producer of Warrior. He added: “As a show that proudly bears the imprimatur of Bruce Lee, it’s our intention to deliver not only explosive martial arts action – which we will – but also a powerful and complex immigration drama that is as relevant today as it was in the 1870s."
The topic of immigration is something that permeates Lee’s history and consequent legacy in entertainment. In 1971, Lee pitched a Kung Fu western television series to Warner Brothers which he called The Warrior.
Lee was turned down because at the time big studios like Warner Brothers were reluctant to cast an Asian lead. But soon after the pitch, Warner Brothers produced a series called Kung Fu, which had an uncanny resemblance to Lee’s original idea.
The series stared American actor David Carradine – who had no martial arts experience - and gave no credit to Lee. As such, Cinemax’s new series, bearing the same title as Lee’s erstwhile Kung Fu western pitch, can be seen as a historical restitution to his legacy.
Filming ‘Warrior’ in Cape Town
Despite being set in San Francisco, HBO Cinemax’s Warrior was exclusively filmed in Cape Town, South Africa. The large 19th-century Chinatown sets were built at the Cape Town Film Studios along the South African coast.
Cape Town’s provincial minister of Economic Opportunities, Alan Winde, stated that “Cinemax’s decision to shoot the ‘Warrior’ series in Cape Town further cements the reputation of our destination as a leading filming location.”
Genevieve Hofmeyr of Moonlighting Films, the local service company working on the series, said that the production employed “over six-hundred (600) local film crew, of which around 60% are previously disadvantaged individuals (PDI), and there are approximately 6,000 man-days budgeted for extras and stunt performers”.
HBO/Cinemax’s Warrior includes some of South Africa’s foremost stunt performers. Toni Jean Erasmus was involved with other big projects filmed in Cape Town, including Maze Runner and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.
Shaun Verth and Ian Williamson, veteran stunt-performers of the series Black Sails which also filmed exclusively at the Cape Town Film Studios, are also involved with Warrior. Cape Town actors Langley Kirkwood and Robert Hobbs star in the series, alongside an accomplished international cast that includes Olivia Cheng, Jason Tobin, and Perry Yung.
HBO Cinemax’s Warrior looks like it is going to be a riveting, action-packed series that brings Lee’s long lost idea, and endearing influence on modern martial arts entertainment, back to the screen. HBO Cinemax’s Warrior premiers on Cinemax on the 5th of April 2019. Title image courtesy of Cinemax.