Into The Badlands: slick kung fu meets dystopia

Into The Badlands is a new post-apocalyptic martial arts fantasy. Here's why its six-episode first season is worth a look.

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Every so often a show comes along that stokes the fires of genre TV fans because it wears its heart plainly upon its sleeve; without doubt, Into The Badlands is a brightly burning ember that aims to do just that. Make no mistake, this is a kung fu show – not a show with kung fu but a kung fu show. Everything about it, from the post-apocalyptic-world-without-guns setup to the brutal yet masterful fight sequences that precede each episode’s opening credits suggest that this is a show where the storytelling was conceived around one core concept: creating scores of spectacular fight scenes whilst maybe squeezing in a few martial arts-style meditations on the the darkness that can blight a man’s soul.

If you haven’t heard of Into The Badlands yet then now is a great time to get up to speed. Airing on AMC stateside and Amazon Prime in the UK, the show is a growing prospect that blends unflinching martial arts action with an intriguing dystopian concept. Presently, we’re two episodes into a six-part season so seeing it through promises to not be a drain on your time like some longer American seasons; hopefully, the condensed run-time will also have a positive impact on the storytelling.

The show is set in a post-apocalyptic future where the population of North America is vastly reduced. The masses seek refuge from the dangerous territories by siding with feudal barons. Of these liege-lords, Baron Quinn is the most powerful. He, like the other territorial rulers commands an army of clippers, loyal and deadly warriors ready to do their master’s bidding at a moment’s notice.

Okay, it may sound a little hackneyed… and sure, we could all march merrily down the route of questioning the value of Into The Badlands’ contribution to an already-oversaturated corner of the TV and cinema universe; dark dystopian futures are ten-a-penny these days but why do that when we could be talking about the kung fu? Clearly influenced by Hong Kong action cinema, the fight scenes employ a judicious mix of straight-up choreography and wire work; slick physical encounters are interspersed with brutal money shots. Some of the limb breaks make the sequences in Netflix’s Daredevil look like the kind of gentle tai chi you’d do prior to a lazy afternoon nap. In this sense, the opening episode (The Fort) set the bar high: the two key action sequences featuring Sunny, the show’s hero, both deliver; his fearsome skills with blade and fist firmly underlined his reputation as the greatest of Baron Quinn’s clippers.

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Speaking of Quinn, the most powerful Baron in what remains of the world, it’s worth noting that the courtly charisma that underscores his performance is also important to the show’s impact. Into The Badlands seems intent on staging a tonally-ambiguous morality play where its players will explore the function of honour and civility in a barbaric world where such concepts are archaic; Marton Csokas’ compelling performance as Quinn conveys all aspects of the refined Southern gentleman that he purports to be; of especial importance is the air of sad, slow grace that foreshadows what may well be an eventual fall from power. By the first episode’s climax we see what may well be the roots of a family conspiracy take shape; with internal conflicts stirring to match the external threat growing amongst the Badlands’ other feudal warlords, the fate of Quinn is proving to be one of the show’s most interesting threads.

Into The Badlands is also notable for its use of Deep South imagery throughout the show; if Game Of Thrones is said to take its cues (visual or otherwise) from the English Civil War between Yorkshire and Lancashire, then Quinn’s territories in Into The Badlands are clearly modelled on the American Civil War. From the Baron’s Lincoln-esque beard to the indentured workers in verdant green fields that roll up to grand, white-columned colonial mansions, the imagery here is central to creating an air of melancholic finality. The courteous affectations of characters like Quinn and his upstart rival, The Widow are a decorous veneer that thinly veil the ugliness of the world beneath; of course, the Deep South harboured ugliness and darkness of its own beneath the civilised gentility of the era and the visual references seem fittingly analogous.

Then there’s Daniel Wu, the show’s explosive lead and one of the best reasons to tune in. Although the jury may still be out regarding his young sidekick M.K. played by Aramis Knight (playing the surly younger sidekick without ‘doing an Anakin’ – is it even possible?) – Wu’s Sunny does a good job of portraying his stoicism in the face of growing moral entanglements. With his back emblazoned with tattoos signifying those he has killed in the name of his liege-lord, the veteran clipper symbolically carries the weight of the souls he has slain upon his shoulders. It’s a burden he bears heavily and Wu does a great job of portraying the world-weariness of man who is being pulled in different directions; of one who has seen too much death and is tired of taking lives.

Sonny’s grim forbearance is as resolute as his katana blade but with nothing more than blazing, dark eyes or a simple clenched jaw, Wu is able to present the conflict that torments Sonny’s soul. It helps that he happens to know a thing or two about kung fu too. A fight sequence that occurs in the second episode is breathtakingly well constructed and once again demonstrated Wu’s martial arts prowess. Also impressive is the shot framing during these sequences and one encounter set atop some steel girders already shows that the show’s creators are willing to play with the conventions of the traditional fight sequence to keep things fresh.

Also no slouch in the martial arts department is Emily Beecham’s Widow. As the main rival to the embattled Quinn, the character also features in a stunning action sequence in episode two that showcases why the beautiful yet deadly baron seems to need no clipper by her side. Watching her whirling twin blades carve up foe after foe, like the blurred strikes of an adder’s fangs, it’s impossible not to respect the character’s fearsome skills. Kicking ass the way she does, leather-clad and rocking that amazing red hair, a phone call from Marvel can’t be too far away should Scarlett Johansson ever decide not to take up her place in the Avengers line-up. Plus, Beecham is already used to answering to the name ‘Widow’ – so everybody wins!

Along with the stunning fight sequences, it’s Into The Badlands’ willingness to sometimes tread a darker path that presently elevates it above average fare. Whilst Wu and Beecham’s Widow are great to watch and Marton Csokas’ Quinn continues to be the one of the best things about the show, none of the other performances are absorbing enough yet to give the dramatic moments the gravitas that they need for the show to really elevate itself to the level of The Next Big Thing.

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And therein lies the potential problem. At the moment, Into The Badlands is worth sticking with as it trades off a unique concept. While the spectacle of kung fu action sequences will continue to draw audiences, the show will have to look beyond its three main players to create consistent drama and pathos should it wish to be regarded in the same vein as other AMC classics such as The Walking DeadMad Men, and of course, Breaking Bad. It’s entirely possible that as character arcs develop, the show will bloom and this will come to pass, but at the moment, with two solid episodes under its belt, Into The Badlands continues to occupy No Man’s Land between grower and shower.

So where next for the show? With his options slowly disappearing, surely it’s just a matter of time before Sunny becomes Ronin – a masterless warrior who walks his own path. Where will that trail take us? The answer of course is present in the show’s title: Into The Badlands. This is going to be a bleak journey into the unknown vastness of an unrecognisable world that sadly, is all too familiar; current themes such as the one percent controlling the world’s wealth are clearly evident in the opening episodes and the show’s writers (Alfred Gough and Miles Millar of Smallville fame) have already stated that savagery and extremism will be present, reflecting ‘the brutality of ISIS’ – an all too real horror given recent events. In our world, one man’s honour and some kung fu skills aren’t nearly enough to make a difference to the world’s troubles; in the purest fantasy of Into The Badlands though, they may just be. And perhaps that’s why it works.