‘Into the Badlands’ Series Premiere Review: Don’t Mind If I (Kung) Fu

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One of the first full-scale American attempts at a weekly, live-action martial arts-themed series that I’m aware of since the classic “Kung Fu,” AMC’s latest debut series “Into the Badlands” is a fun, full-bodied blast of action to close out the year with. I want to say there were also stabs at spin-off shows for the videogames “Mortal Kombat” and “Street Fighter” as well, but unless you want to count “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” and the more kid-friendly like, there haven’t been a lot of them, at the very least. Whatever the case, this is certainly one of the most ambitious ones I’ve ever seen, thanks to the sprawling cast, high production values, and overall approach.

Put another way- this one is clearly swinging for the fences, and then some. The show is more or less bookended by two sweet blasts of martial arts action- an opening salvo in which our main hero, Sunny (Daniel Wu, “The Man with the Iron Fists,” “Gen-X Cops”) takes on about ten guys at once in broad daylight; then another throw-down towards the end at night in the rain that brings to mind the opening fight scene in Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster.” Both are superlatively choreographed and great fun to watch. (Wait till you see Wu introduce one guy’s head to his feet!)

The plot is relatively straight-forward: in a futuristic world, the land is ruled over by seven so-called “Barons,” all of whom have people working for them that tend to fall into two factions for the most part: field workers and “clippers,” which are highly-trained warriors sent out to make sure no one is encroaching on each of the Baron’s territories.

Well, those and the Royal families and their servants, the former of which lean towards the “sister-wives”-type of approach, as in each tend to have multiple wives and/or mistresses. So far, there is one exception: the so-called “Widow” (Emily Beecham, “28 Weeks Later,” BBC’s “The Village”), who is rumored to have killed off her husband herself.

The main Baron we meet, however, is Quinn (Marton Csokas, “Rogue,” “The Equalizer”), whose main wife is Lydia (Orla Brady, “American Odyssey,” “Fringe”), who is seemingly more interested in her husband’s power and standing than what he does in the bedroom and who with. Good thing, because he’s openly carrying on with Jade (Sarah Bolger, “Once Upon a Time,” “The Lazarus Effect”), who, in a decidedly icky twist, is herself having an affair with Quinn and Lydia’s son, Ryder (Oliver Stark, “My Hero,” “The Adventurer”).


Sunny himself is in a relationship with Veil (Madeleine Mantock, “Edge of Tomorrow,” “The Tomorrow People”), a doctor who specializes in making and fitting prosthetic limbs for the wounded clippers. Veil, much to his shock, is pregnant, which is apparently a crime punishable by death, should she attempt to have the child. As such, Sunny, somewhat understandably, wants her to abort it, lest he lose the one bright spot in his life.

There’s also M.K. (Aramis Knight, “Ender’s Game,” “Dexter”), a young boy that Sunny discovers locked away in a trunk being transported by the nomads he lays waste to in the aforementioned opening sequence. Apparently, the nomads were tasking with absconding with the boy by any means necessary by the Widow, for reasons unknown. In doing so, they wiped out all of his fellow travelers, which makes Sunny wonder what’s so important about the boy.

Sunny finds out when, in an attempt to retrieve a medallion that was stolen from him by bully Ajax (Shane Graham, “Boyhood”), M.K. gets all shiny-eyed and goes ballistic on Ajax, at one point stabbing him in the eye with a shard of glass! It seems that whenever he is wounded enough to bleed, he transforms into a skilled warrior that is decidedly tough to beat, which, one assumes, is why the Widow wants him.

In addition, the medallion in question has a symbol that Sunny recognizes- it’s a direct match to a symbol on a pocket watch he has. M.K. tells him the symbol represents Azra, a place that reputedly exists outside of the titular badlands, and which Sunny has some connection with. In a brief flashback, we see Sunny retrieve the watch from a dead body. One assumes that either that either Sunny is from Azra or his family was killed by someone from there. My guess would be the former, but we’ll just have to wait and see on that one.

That’s the basic set-up, and, as you might have guessed from the description, the end result is a sort of mash-up of different ideas cribbed from everything from the “Mad Max” series to “The Handmaid’s Tale” (albeit in reverse- here, instead of some women being reduced to incubators, it’s the polar opposite, where having children is breaking the law). Obviously, Asian culture is a big influence as well, with the primary influence being the Chinese TV series “Journey to the West,” itself based on the book series of the same name, aka “Monkey,” which dates back to the 16th Century.

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The end result is a lot of fun, and if the characterization is a bit one-note thus far, what the show lacks in well-drawn characters it more than makes up for in action, that’s for sure. Also, with the show only running for 6 episodes thus far, it’s a limited commitment that should play well with binge-watchers once ended. Given that AMC could use another hit, what with “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” finished off, I’m guessing they’re hoping this could be their next signature series, albeit more in the post-apocalyptic “Walking Dead” mode than those more lofty-minded series.

The good news is that the series moves along at a nice clip, the action is jaw-dropping and highly entertaining, and though the characters might be thinly-drawn thus far, they still manage to be relatively compelling, particularly Sunny. Sunny has that whole lone wolf, man-of-few-words thing going that immediately brings to mind such iconic characters as “Mad Max” and “The Man with No Name,” and, of course, Toshiro Mifune’s iconic “Yojimbo” character, and he certainly delivers on the action front.

The series was created by “Smallville” masterminds Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, who also did the two “Shangai” movies with Jackie Chan; and the pilot was directed by David Dobkin, best-known for “The Judge,” “Wedding Crashers” and “Clay Pigeons.” All in all, it’s a good start to what could be an engaging, entertaining series. At the very least, if you’re looking for a fun action series, you could do a lot worse.