It pains me to say it but Into the Badlands is flawed. It’s not that great to put things mildly. The plot is irrational and borderline moronic, to be a little more harsh. As a long time martial arts fan, I hate to say it, but with only 6 episodes in its first season, I can’t recommend it to anyone just yet. But don’t take my word for it, you can watch it for free on AMC’s site.
It’s not to say it is without hope. I mean a lot of shows suck early as they struggle to find their footing. And the show does have some excellent elements that I admire but it’s not enough to tip the scales in its favor. At best I could only recommend waiting for it to come to Netflix or at least letting it finish out another season (well, if it lasts that long). I’ll cut to the quick for you.
Taking place in Louisiana, a head body guard by the name of Sunny goes about doing his despotic leader’s bidding. In what may be a NRA members worst nightmare, guns are outlawed and martial arts reigns supreme. Sunny as head clipper and regent of his Baron is the best fighter in the region. All except for a young boy Sunny finds named M.K. who has supernatural abilities that are released when he is cut. Sunny, slowly learning the depravity of his leader’s ways and the desperation of his situation, plots escape, forgoing the prestige and trust this despot bestows on him for his great skills in combat. Planning to take his romantic interest with him along with his new fighter in training, M.K, Sunny plans escape Into The Badlands. Sadly as my disappointment with the show grew, I kept thinking of South Park’s Mr. Mackey every time they mentioned M.K.
Badlands: The Good
The action is crisp and excellent. Seeing Daniel Wu, who is an experienced martial arts actor, is what sets Into the Badlands apart from any other action show out there. This Hong Kong style action isn’t seen much on the Western television, if at all. Unlike a lot of other Western copies of kung fu, Into the Badlands films it so much better making the moves the star of the action and not the actor’s faces. Usually when Western movies try these they zoom way too close because of the star power of the actor and because the aforementioned star’s lack of martial arts skill. Casting Daniel Wu for the fight scenes was an excellent choice. Each punch and kick he throws looks authentic because actor and stunt man are one and the same. All the fight scenes choreographed well and the pacing is just right.
Surprisingly the acting is much better than any kung fu show has any right to be. Wu does a great job as a clean cut, straight forward hero who is unmistakably on the good side of morality. Contrasted by the Baron (Marton Coskas), who is played so oily and paranoid that he will make you squirm with loathing for him. Csokas, a New Zealander, pulls off an incredible Southern gentlemen’s accent (just think Val Kilmer Doc Holliday from Tombstone and you have the idea.) A hero is defined by a villain and, as a foil for Sunny, Csokas is remarkable.
The rest of the supporting cast is incredibly talented as well. The deadly sexy Emily Beecham as up and coming baroness. The gorgeous Orla Brady as the outgoing baroness, and the smart and sexy Sarah Bolger as the new baroness all do an excellent job of bringing this new world into focus. The young Aramis Knight and Ally Ioannides as star crossed lovers round out the cast excellently. An important part of story telling is character’s and Into the Badlands gets this right.
The show is pretty. It really is easy on the eyes. It makes excellent use of Southern Culture and settings, one moment showing the regal flair of a Baron’s home and castle, while at another showing the gritty urban look of the French Quarter of New Orleans. All the while interspersing stunning vistas flowers in bloom and weeping willows. At no time could this be mistaken for Southern California like every other show out there; this is the natural beauty of the South. All of this is shot expertly using some great cinematography. Seeing a long shot of Sunny ridding down a road laden with southern flowers is incredible. And you can’t escape the nod to the Samurai flicks of old.
Costuming is another more subtle force. True to form of classic Kung Fu shows, each domain has its own look and feel to it. Where Sunny’s side has sleeveless soldiers in red leather Chinese style clothes other lords are visually distinguished. One group wields Scottish basket-hilted swords and Celtic plaid clothing, while another group further north sports loose baggy pants and Indian kukri short swords. Lords and lieutenants dress apart from the soldiers but are still bound to the fashion style of their domain. It’s an easy way to see stark clan lines that is a hallmark of kung fu films of feudal China. It’s a subtle but superb touch.
Badlands: The Bad
Well there is only one real bad thing of the show but it’s by far the most important: the plot. It could be said that pure kung fu shows don’t really need plot, it’s all about the action after all. The bad thing is that Into The Badlands is actually trying really hard at the plot and failing at it miserably, often times laughably so. Each episode averages out to maybe one fight scene and a half with drama making up the rest. I’m reminded of complaints about The Walking Dead not having enough zombies and too much drama. Consider this and realize that Into The Badland’s drama not nearly being as good.
The characters and interactions are awesome, which is an integral part of any plot driven show, but when you zoom out just a little and ask yourself why am I watching this? It’s as if they know where they want the show to go but the steps they make the characters take to get there are lame.
A good example of this, and perhaps low hanging fruit for plot making, is building up for a confrontation. Something even Hong Kong action shows can easily get right, Into The Badlands stumbles into. Take for example 2008’s Ip Man film. It slowly builds up animosity and tension between the Wing Chun master and the evil Japanese general. The whole time you know there will be a show down between the two. It’s inevitable. It takes time to show the hero and his friends suffering and when the fight scene happens the audience is rooting for the hero to win. The confrontation is savored and has purpose.
It’s not like this is the only option for a simple kung fu story.
Netflix’s Daredevil show handles the relationship between fight scenes and plot much better. Though Into the Badlands is a much more sophisticated kind of fight, Daredevil’s fights always have purpose. The epic long shot fight in the green hallway from the second episode isn’t fancy, it’s a knockdown, dragged out, brawl. It shows Daredevil’s drive bordering on obsession and it ends with the characters perseverance wining the day, not his fighting skill.
Into the Badlands on the other hand bungles even this simple element in action shows. Though technically very good it is “with out emotional content” as Bruce Lee would say. It’s as though they sprinkled fight scenes at random into a mediocre show with minimal cause and little purpose. An example of this let down would be the major confrontation with Sunny’s greatest enemy, It ends in a couple seconds with a stabbing and is quickly glossed over.
And later on when the other rival baron’s come to fight and Sunny’s apprentice and he release his long anticipated supernatural abilities its not really shown, nor are the consequences. Many of the other fight scenes happen without much purpose and have little consequence either. You could just as easily substitute the fights with verbal arguments and it would be same before and after. A bad sign for any show, let alone one emphasizing martial arts. Even the simplest of Kung Fu shows know how to make fights matter! In even the most typical fight scenes you have to root for the protagonist on some level, the fight scene although technically good lack in any relevance, any umph. There really is no excuse for not having this minimal level of fights with some purpose in the plot.
I’m not sure AMC is willing to venture out of its comfort zone of drama driven shows to give an honest Kung fu one a shot. And Into The Badlands plot just isn’t good enough to stand on its own. Though the fight scenes are technically some of the best, there are still better fights with much better purpose. The fight scenes on Into The Badlands are hallow and meaningless despite stunning visuals and excellent acting. As it is I can’t really recommend it to anyone either as a drama or an action show.
The best case scenario would be for someone like Daniel Wu and his stunt team coming over to another show like Netflix’s up and coming Iron Fist. At the very least though it demonstrates how good fight scenes can be done on television and that it is possible after all. And that the producers shouldn’t shy away from some really technical kung fu. Yea that’s it, maybe cut and paste the fight scenes from Into the Badlands onto another show and we’ll be all set. I’ll give a generous 2.5 out of 5, but just because I have a soft spot in my heart for some kung fu.