After watching the first two episodes of this new post-apocalyptic epic, I will say this: Into The Badlands has some of the coolest martial arts action ever seen in a US TV show.
A distinct change of pace from the typical quick-cut, heavily edited action we’re used to watching on the boob tube, a lot of Badlands’ mayhem is done in long and very cinematic (to be precise, Hong Kong cinema-tic) takes, with the fighters executing fluid sequences of moves.
Credit for this has to go to the show’s executive producer and fight director Stephen Fung – a name that should be familiar in these waters – and his collaborators, who really put the cast through their paces in training for the shoot.
It also helps that the lead actor is the versatile (and also martial arts-trained) Daniel Wu, another familiar face in these parts. Wu plays Sunny, a Clipper. And because you’re wondering what place barbers have in a post-apocalyptic scenario, let’s rewind a little.
The “Badlands” of the title refers to an unspecified chunk of real estate in an America many years after the last great war. Guns are forbidden, and the territory is ruled by seven feudal Barons who have an uneasy truce for practical purposes and of course, for profit.
Their private armies of killers are known as Clippers, and Sunny is the one of the best there is at what he does.
Though who he does it for isn’t very pretty – his master is the poppy-growing Baron known as Quinn (Marton Csokas, in a performance that leaves no piece of scenery unchewed and with a beard to absorb the crumbs), a vicious killer whose hold on power is slipping.
A rival Baron known as The Widow (Emily Beecham) has been raiding Quinn’s caravans, aiming to provoke a war. One such raid leads to Sunny rescuing MK (Aramis Knight), a youth who apparently has some kind of great power that manifests only when his skin is cut.
If that sounds like pushing it a bit, get this: series creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Smallville) apparently based this show on the 16th-century Chinese classic Journey To The West.
Two episodes in, I’m not really sure how the two tie in, though a journey of some kind is imminent. Still, let’s just be thankful for the non-appearance of Zhu Bajie up to this point. Come to think of it though, Sunny … Sun Wukong? Or maybe MK = Monkey King? Hmm.
Aspirations to literature aside, Badlands – as stated above – really does deliver on the fight scenes. The pilot opens with Sunny taking on a band of murderous nomads who soon find themselves wishing (during their last seconds of life) they’d stayed on the move, and the episode’s brutality factor kind of just escalates from there.
It’s no different with the second episode, which sees The Widow exploding into vicious slice-and-dice action right at the start and later has Sunny taking on even more killers, like the one-man army he is written to be.
The show is also very stylishly shot and framed, a lot of it with Wu as the centrepiece, and it’s good that the star has the charisma and chops to fulfil the duties of a series lead.
Unfortunately, some screen time has to be devoted to the somewhat stiff Knight, since MK appears likely to be Sunny’s apprentice; and also to Quinn, who at times is so OTT that he borders on caricature and really makes you wonder how Sunny has stayed loyal for so long.
And of course there are all the other dramatis personae, their characters either ludicrous or well-worn: the scheming son who’s a disappointment to his father, the caring town doctor who’s in love with the murderous antihero, the girl who’s a trained killer but has a soft heart for the handsome young lad in distress, the betrayed matriarch who couldn’t give a toot about her husband’s indiscretions as long as her position is not disturbed … I suppose I should also touch on the various innocents who exist only to be slaughtered “just because”.
It’s clear that more care and attention went into crafting elaborate, jaw-dropping fight scenes than tightening the plot and polishing the dialogue (some it will evoke much gnashing of teeth).
And 33% of the way into this debut season’s six-episode run, it’s the discipline that shines through amidst all the glorious bloodletting (pardon the desensitised comment) that elevates Badlands above the indiscipline of so much of the material in between.
But a series cannot thrive solely on its action, however good it is; and this one seriously needs to straighten up and fly right if it intends to journey all the way west. Or, like the somewhat similar Revolution, it might just fall by the wayside.
Into The Badlands premieres tomorrow at 11am, with a repeat at 10pm, on AMC (ABNxcess Ch 351).