Review: AMC's "Into the Badlands"

AMC's highly-anticipated martial arts drama premieres at 10pm Sunday, November 15, and may very well be the channel's next big pop culture phenomenon. But its first two hours heavily rely on impressive visuals and complex action choreography at the expense of emotional depth, dramatic tension and the element of unpredictability.

Daniel Wu as Sunny. Credit: James Dimmock/AMC

Daniel Wu as Sunny. Credit: James Dimmock/AMC

During an interview conducted many years ago, Chinese action legend Jackie Chan made a valuable observation about great martial arts heroes. What makes the best ones unforgettable, Chan said, is that they don’t always win, at least not right away. They have to take a bit of a beating before making a comeback. Without this believable sense of struggle, the audience gets bored.

Mind you, this nugget of wisdom comes from a man who has broken nearly every bone in his body. But watching the first two episodes of AMC’s six-part martial arts series Into the Badlands, one can see his point.

Every time Badlands star Daniel Wu tears through a herd of opponents, he does so with such certainty and force that victory is never in question. It’s exciting to watch at first, but the dramatic tension diminishes with each subsequent conflict.  Every opponent’s blade lands exactly where it’s supposed to; every goon hits his mark with gusto, takes his prescribed licks and dies efficiently. For a bloody enterprise, it all feels very…clean.

Wu's elegant athleticism is nothing to scoff at, understand. Even without the wire work augmenting his movement, the directed ferocity with which the actor infuses his character Sunny is fascinating. Even so, the drama’s intricately wrought action sequences somehow lessen the stakes for Sunny, making each episode play more like a two-dimensional, flawlessly choreographed comic book.

That's not necessarily a deal breaker; indeed, for a number of viewers, that's a central lure.

Into the Badlands is foremost a stunning work of pop art. Fields of scarlet poppies explode off the screen as Sunny tears through them on his bike, wearing his blood red uniform. In another fiefdom, a well-trained warrior (Ally Ioannides) wears royal blue and favors butterfly-shaped shuriken;  the guards wear jaunty hats.

In a landscape of little else besides hay-colored fields and pale blue skies, the visuals are the leading element, and the first actors to elicit any emotional response. In essence, this makes Badlands more like a moving graphic novel, or a some grim territory that borders L. Frank Baum’s Oz.

Ally Ioannides as Tilda. Credit: Patti Perret/AMC

Ally Ioannides as Tilda. Credit: Patti Perret/AMC

Though the show’s creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar have plenty of experience in navigating the comic book realm, as they previously demonstrated by executive producing ten seasons of Smallville, Badlands takes inspiration from the Chinese literary classic Journey Into the West. Said work is actually the compilation of several stories, but the main tale involves a quest to retrieve lost scriptures from India.

Sunny’s odyssey does not appear to be so noble, at least at first. Then again, the journey doesn’t explicitly begin during those two episodes, so who can say?

Here’s the initial reveal: The Badlands are a union born out of an uneasy division of power between seven rival barons. In this dystopian future, guns are gone, and society is made up by those who control wealth and precious resources, and those who serve them, largely composed of a labor class is known as Cogs. The law of the land, as far as it exists, is enforced by highly trained soldiers called Clippers. The fiercest of these is, of course, Sunny.

The only force holding Sunny back is loyalty to his baron, an unctuous, vicious man named Quinn played Marton Csokas, who makes the odd choice of giving Quinn a languid, boozy Southern accent. Maybe he thought that made his antagonist more sinister, but viewing it is akin to asking someone to tolerate a mild stench while eating a reasonably tasty plate of food.

When one of Quinn’s cargo transports is ambushed, Sunny hunts down to the party responsible and discovers that a boy named M.K. (Aramis Knight), the only survivor, is the reason for the raid.

Apparently M.K. is of high value to Quinn’s rival, The Widow (played with minimal dramatic range by Emily Beecham), who believes M.K. possesses a power that can tip the scales in her favor.  But M.K. and Sunny may be connected in a more profound way, which the Clipper must hide from his boss.

Emily Beecham as The Widow. Credit: James Dimmock/AMC

Emily Beecham as The Widow. Credit: James Dimmock/AMC

Throw in the fact that Quinn has no redeeming qualities to speak of, not to mention a son who hates him (Oliver Stark), a first wife who tolerates him only because he grants her status and power (Orla Brady) and a soon-to-be second wife whose loyalty is questionable (Sarah Bolger). Understandably, Sunny is ripe for a job change, and may take M.K. under his wing for good measure.

Badlands has plenty of world-building potential, which is hinted at during its first two episodes. But it’s still an odd choice to focus so heavily on style at the expense of substance as a table-setting device for a new series, even one that’s this action-heavy.  Emotional depth appears to be an extinct quality in this new world; the near-lifelessness with which each actor delivers his or her line stultifies the plot’s progression.

That said, the blend of style influences from feudal Japan, the antebellum American South and the Wild West – minus the guns -- is impressive. There are enough brocades and blades in the first two episodes to kick off a massive Pavlovian response throughout geekdom. Steampunks, in particular, may be the most willing to overlook the show’s initial flaws.

So could AMC, for that matter. With its prestige hits Mad Men and Breaking Bad gone from the schedule, Badlands fits in perfectly with the brand’s devotion to genre programming. Android drama Humans will be returning for a second season, and a series based on the cult comic book title Preacher is joining the schedule in 2016, along with zombies and more zombies. Thus it would be understandable if the channel gave Badlands more rope, perhaps with faith that Gough and Millar will inject more heart and humanity into the tale.

Badlands is plenty pretty enough to pass the time. But if we're to connect with the series on a deeper level, the producers must eventually let us see, and truly feel, these characters' bruises.