I tuned into last night’s series premiere of Into the Badlands expecting balletic swordsplay that echoed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and gruesome cuts that recalled Kill Bill. I was not disappointed.
Ten years ago, AMC was the cable network that made people go, “You mean that channel with all the old movies?” But today, the network that brought us Mad Men, The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad is attempting to reacquaint Americans with the martial arts genre. It’s a move that’s making some of my colleagues rightfully call AMC the emergent “graphic novel network.”
Into the Badlands is stylized, action-packed, and complete eye candy. When I covered this show at New York Comic Con earlier this fall, the cast promised at least two big fight scenes per episode. Last night I counted at least three, and they were packed with flung spears, brandished katanas, acrobatic suplexes, and lots of limb grabbing, crunching, crushing.
It’s completely mesmerizing, and worthy of any Jet Li or Jackie Chan battle sequence. It’s to be expected, considering the show has its own director just for the fight scenes. The reason why the show reminded me of two my favorite martial arts flicks, Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger? Because AMC nabbed the jackpot of Huan-Chiu Ku, famed martial arts choreographer who’s worked on those very two films.
Into the Badlands seems to take place in some sort of postapocalyptic world. I know, I know, it’s a setting you’re likely sick of, but stay with me. We follow Sunny (Daniel Wu), the most prolific assassin in these parts, which are called the Badlands. They’re a mix of the swampy South (it’s filmed in New Orleans)—filled with droning cicadas and drooping vines and beautiful orange poppies—and steampunk dystopia brimming with motorcycle-riding, sword-swinging killers. In one scene, you see an antebellum-style, lily white southern plantation, but with crimson red, imperial tapestries draping its stately facade, a field full of lines of ninja troops running militaristic drills out front.
Ruling this land are seven barons, who in turn manage a clan of “clippers”: personal bodyguards and mercenaries. Sunny happens to be the deadliest clipper of all. But once he rescues a kidnapped young boy named M.K., and learns that his own girlfriend is pregnant, he suddenly has a budding desire to escape the Badlands, start life anew, and abandon his baron, as well as his career of murder. Problem is, trying to flee the Badlands is grounds for capture and execution, and while a paradisal shangri-la is rumored to exist beyond the borders, it could just be an old wives’ tale—a deadly one, at that.
We get the sense that this world might be “postapocalyptic” because of clues to a society that might’ve existed long ago: For example, guns apparently existed at some point, but have been outlawed. Sunny’s baron also tells a group of young boys (clippers-in-training) that “people used to think this was a holy book,” holding up the Bible. Speaking of books: Sunny, who’s illiterate, is seen practicing reading with his girlfriend at one point, and mentions he’d rather read The Cat in the Hat.
If Sunny wants to escape this hellhole, though, he’s got his work cut out for him. A redheaded baron known as The Widow (Emily Beecham) is presented as an antagonist. We meet her in a goth-Lolita getup while holding a Lemony Snickett umbrella, and she promises she’ll make life hell for Sunny, and won’t stop until he turns over M.K. to her, for unknown reasons. She rivals Sunny in terms of skill, ruthlessness, and badassery, as we saw her go all Beatrix Kiddo on a bar full of goons in teased video at New York Comic Con.
Despite The Widow’s pursuit, young M.K. (Aramis Knight) can take care of himself, too. When agitated, his eyes turn sinister black and he transforms into an Evil Ryu killing machine, and doesn’t snap out of his trance of destruction until he shurikens a huge chunk of glass into a bully’s eyeball, which is exactly what happens in this episode.
I mentioned in my Comic Con writeup for this show that it’s arguably the first martial arts-focused program in the United States since Kung Fu in the ‘70s. What’s more, though? The main character is Asian. I praise AMC for this. This week, NPR and Vulture have reported that, overall, 2015 was a pretty progressive year for Asian-Americans appearing on TV in the U.S., and the fact that AMC tapped a Chinese-American male (who has demonstrated martial arts expertise and a long resume of blockbusters across the Pacific) is extremely appreciated.
My main worry? While the gorgeous melees are reason enough to watch, the plotline might fall into a cliche black hole: There’s already the low-tech dystopian society, the mercenary with a heart of gold, the idyllic promised land, the lethal kid prodigy. Still, it’s only the first episode, and pilots are meant to be expository and introductory.
I also hope the dazzling kung fu doesn’t detract from the actual storytelling. If a show relies too much on a schtick or gimmick, it will not last. That’s why Mr. Robot was so successful as a new show this year: Every episode didn’t wring the rag of hackers and flashy gear and cyberattacks. Instead, it was a show about likable, believable characters, their relationships and shared histories, exposed piecemeal through the season. That’s what fueled the real action and viewer interest. Can Into the Badlands pull it off? Considering the rest of AMC’s portfolio, there’s no reason to believe it can’t.
Twitter seemed to like it, at least: #IntoTheBadlands was a top trending topic last night. (#ColorMeBadlands, which I truly hope becomes the fandom’s official hashtag, also enjoyed popularity.) I saw viewers make comparisons to Samurai Champloo and even Mortal Kombat, which I wouldn’t disagree with.
If the show can achieve character development that’s worthy of the same network that brought us Don Draper and Walter White, then Into the Badlands could be a landmark show. It’s bringing this genre back to mainstream American media on a big platform. And if you’re like me—raised on Bruce Lee and John Woo and was way too obsessed with Ninja Turtles—then you’ll be drooling in front of your TV screen, hanging on every sword clash and roundhouse kick.
All photos Patti Perret/AMC
Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter.