In the US: Sundays, 10/9c, AMC
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What happens when an unstoppable force hits an immovable object?
What’s the answer? Into the Badlands. How so? Because it’s an actual, real-world test of that paradox. It takes the unstoppable force that is the Hong Kong martial arts movie and confronts it with the immobable object of an AMC TV series.
Despite the likes of Indonesia’s The Raid coming along to challenge them, Hong Kong martial arts movies are, of course, the fastest genre in the world. If you have any interest in martial movies, you watch Hong Kong martial arts to see the best – and fastest – martial artists the silver screen has to offer. I’m most partial to classic Jet Li myself, but Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan et al have all formed part of my viewing habits since Jonathan Ross’s Son of The Incredibly Strange Film Show revealed their delights to me back in the 80s.
And the slowest genre in the world? AMC TV series. The network practically fetishises slowness:
There must be a guy at AMC that stops you after one sentence of your pitch and says, “whoa whoa, save some of this for season two!”
— Dan Harmon (@danharmon) April 4, 2011
Even its fastest shows – Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul – have a glacial chill to them, and that’s before we consider the almost geological time scales over which the likes of Mad Men, Hell on Wheels and Halt and Catch Fire operate.
And Into The Badlands is a deliberate attempt to bring these two genres together. Rather bizarrely the brainchild of Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, it stars Daniel Wu, an American actor but the star of dozens of Hong Kong martial arts movies.
The show is set in a post-apocalyptic America. This isn’t that surprising: martial arts date from before guns and are made largely redundant by the presence of guns, so a martial arts movie usually needs to have a reason for there to not be any guns – something somewhat problematic in modern-day and even historic America, but not so hard in a post-apocalyptic, post-technological society. Unles you turn the guns into a virtue, of course.
As with most other post-apocalyptic societies, everything’s become weirdly patriarchal and feudal in Into The Badlands, with seven ‘barons’ now running America, following a series of wars. Each has made their territory safe and stopped the wars by getting rid of guns. In return, everyone either learns how to be a ‘Clipper’ – martial arts soldier cops – assuming they’re male or goes to work in the fields picking poppies or getting married to the Baron.
Wu plays one such Clipper, who patrols the territories, enforcing the justice of his increasingly unstable, increasingly bewived Baron (Marton Csokas from Falcón, Rogue, The Equalizer, The Bourne Supremacy). One day, he comes across a peaceful boy sought after by another Baron, ‘The Widow’, only to discover that he gets superhero killing powers at odd moments.
What will he do? WIll he take the boy into the lawless ‘Badlands’ between Barons’ terrorities, looking for the boy’s mother and answers to his own past? And will he do it before the Sun expands into a Red Giant and dies (aka the next AMC Upfronts)?
Centuries from now, a feudal society has emerged in the wake of civilization’s destruction. This area is now called the Badlands and is uneasily divided among seven rival Barons. Each Baron enforces their iron rule with the aid of loyal armies of trained assassins known as Clippers.
The most lethal of the Badlands’ Clippers is Sunny (Daniel Wu) — the Regent (Head Clipper) and most trusted advisor of Baron Quinn (Marton Csokas). For decades, Quinn has been unchallenged as the Badlands’ most powerful Baron; however, the territory’s newest Baron, The Widow (Emily Beecham), has begun testing his appetite for a fight.
One day, Sunny rescues M.K. (Aramis Knight), a teenage boy who has survived a deadly ambush. Sunny soon comes to understand that the teen harbors a dark secret and has a hefty bounty on his head. Together, they will embark on an odyssey that could mean the difference between chaos and enlightenment for everyone in the Badlands.
Is it any good?
It was always going to be difficult combining AMC and Hong Kong aesthetics and Into The Badlands falters quite considerably in achieving its aim. But it’s not terrible. Just pretty forgettable.
The show’s biggest trouble is that it’s too much AMC, not enough Hong Kong, yet would rather be Hong Kong than AMC. AMC shows’ biggest assets have always been their characters and writing, as well as their looks. But while Into The Badlands looks as fabulous as other AMC shows, it has some quite perfunctory scripting. Most scenes involve people monologuing badly at each other, rather than having conversations. Characters are poorly defined with little depth. The show’s feudal society is a lazy, misogynistic, impractical bit of world-building at best, with female roles virtually non-existent or reduced to ‘wife’ and ‘girlfriend’ status bar one. And if everyone’s either a poppy-worker or Clipper, where does all the oil and food come from?
All this might be excusable in a show that was merely using this set-up to piggy back some proper Hong Kong fights onto the small screen. Into The Badlands, however, is too AMC to have more than a couple of proper set-piece fights per episode, leaving vast, gaping expanses of boredom to fill between fights.
Which again wouldn’t be too bad if the fights were great. You might forward wind through the tiresome plots and watch the fight scenes (I’ve watched DVDs that have literally given you the option to ‘view fight scenes only’), but at least you’d watch them. And Into The Badlands would certainly want to think that its fight scenes are great.
The trouble is that while Daniel Wu certainly has the fighting chops, the direction isn’t quite there yet. Everything looks beautiful, but the wirework is obvious, camera work is slow, cuts are slow and worst of all, there’s nothing new here for the discerning martial arts fan. You’ll have seen it all before. Even Tarantino did better in Kill Bill.
Ever since Kung Fu and The Green Hornet, US TV has tried to lure in martial arts fans with ‘martial arts’ shows. Even CHIPS tried to give us karate every so often. The trouble is, as I said earlier, if you’re into martial arts movies, you’ll watch Hong Kong martial arts movies, so any show that claims to be a martial arts show had better be up to those standards or the viewers will leave quickly. Maybe not if the drama’s there, too, but without it, it’ll lose its lustre quickly.
So Into The Badlands has a decision to make: either get better at the drama or get better at the martial arts, because as it stands, it looks set to disappear in a faint puff of paradoxical, low-rated logic.