It’s been a while since there has been a really good martial arts series on TV. Sure, shows like Daredevil have had brutal, visceral action and we can usually expect at least one large-scale action sequence per season of Game of Thrones and True Detective, but the martial arts genre has its own special magic. The fight choreography of films like The Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or The Grandmaster functions like a dance, telling its own story and often expressing the motivations of the characters as well as any expository dialogue could. AMC’s new martial arts series Into the Badlands has ambitions to reach that level of greatness but bogs its story and characters down in so much derivative mythology that I often found myself just waiting for something to happen in order to get the story moving again.
Set in a vaguely-defined post apocalyptic America, Into the Badlands follows Sunny (Daniel Wu, The Man With the Iron Fists) as a warrior in service to one of the five Barons who rule the Badlands. The pilot’s opening sequence shows Sunny single-handedly wiping out a group of nomadic warriors who had attacked a convoy that was headed towards his fortress. He then discovers that the group was holding a hostage, a teenage boy named M.K. (the wonderfully named Aramis Knight) who understandably isn’t all that interested in opening up to the man who had just slaughtered a half-dozen people without breaking a sweat. Knowing that there had to be a reason for the nomads to kidnap M.K. (and believing they were hired to do so by a rival Baron), Sunny takes him back to the stronghold so he can join the ranks of teenage recruits. Sunny also introduces the lad to Baron Quinn (Martin Csokas, Sons of Liberty), who runs his stronghold like a 19th-century slave plantation and delivers his dialogue as if he’s auditioning to be the next actor to play Colonel Sanders in those KFC commercials.
It’s admittedly a fun idea to turn a post apocalyptic setting into a mashup of Medival, Antebellum, and Wuxia settings, but creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Smallville) and director David Dobkin (Samurai Noon, Samurai Knights) don’t really do all that much interesting with it. All of the characters are playing archetypes with Mysterious Pasts, and the land and buildings seem way too neat and tidy. I don’t demand that all characters in a post apocalyptic setting have rotting teeth and filthy clothing, but this place is so well-lit and free of dirt and grime that it barely seems lived in, let along dystopian (even the tattoos on Sunny’s back seem painted on) There is some vague dialogue about there being danger “beyond The Badlands”, but that’s the only clue we are given to some sense of danger inherent in the setting, apart from the characters themselves.
That said, the conflicts between the characters are defined and implied well enough to make it pretty fun to try and figure out where their loyalties lie. Quinn’s major rival is The Widow (Emily Beecham, 28 Weeks Later), who controls The Badlands’ oil production, which Quinn needs to be able to fuel his own plantation. The power dynamic between the Barons is something I hope to see more of in future episodes, as they all appear to be controlling a different, essential part of life and as such are in a forced and uneasy alliance. The idea behind that is more interesting to me than the fraying loyalty of Quinn’s son (Oliver Stark) and the tension between his wives (Orla Brady and Sarah Bolger). Sunny and H.K. both have motivations of their own as well, of escaping to a city beyond the Badlands that they have vague memories of, but little idea of how to find it.
Daniel Wu makes for a charismatic and appealing hero, even when he’s saddled with clichéd dialogue, and he’s more than up to the task of the action sequences. While the opening sequence is almost cartoony in how easily Sunny is shown to be able to dislocate limbs and break necks, a sword fight in a rainy city street later in the episode has a much greater feeling of beauty and danger (even if it is blatantly derivative of The Grandmaster). Aramis Knight also does a good job of giving personality to his character, even if he hasn’t yet received much shading beyond being a living MacGuffin as of yet. Beecham and Bolger also make strong impressions even though, again, they did not have a whole lot to do in this episode.
Of course, it’s a common curse of TV pilots that they often have to spend so much time establishing the story and characters that there’s not always time to create forward momentum. Hopefully, future episodes of Into the Badlands find a way to transcend the derivative nature of the setting and characters. Daniel Wu and impressive fight choreography can only carry it so far.