'Into the Badlands': TV Review

Into the Badlands - H
Bloody good fun.

AMC finds a bloody, fun and entertaining non-zombie counterpart to 'The Walking Dead' and turns Sundays into an escapist red zone.

There's a certain implicit understanding between martial arts movies and connoisseurs of the genre.

In the depiction of ass-kicking, a martial arts master will be able to take on more combatants than is feasibly survivable. Said master may also be able to fly through the air  sometimes literally. He or she will miraculously partake in fights that seem to be exquisitely choreographed, as if the introduction of one combatant fighting out of turn would be both ugly and dangerous.

All of this choreographed beauty to the beat of snapped bones and the precise flipping of rivals is an accepted condition of the martial arts genre.

If you were to introduce, as AMC’s latest drama Into the Badlands does, a menagerie of sharp swords, knives and axes, then the deal between the martial arts entertainment and the thoroughly into-it audience would also include the knowledge that countless people will be cut to ribbons and blood will fly everywhere, as if pouring from a hose.

If you are comfortable with (and, in fact, super enthusiastic about) these conditions, then you are a martial arts buff and not prone to needing a more realistic portrayal of life, action and gravity. If you did need realism, you would be a total buzzkill here, better served watching yet another dreary drama about antiheroes.

Imagine the delight of true martial arts movie fans at the creation of an action-packed, insanely bloody and entertainingly intense television series. One hour a week (in the case of Into the Badlands season one, a mere six episodes) of kicks, punches, slicing, dicing and neck-snapping.

It’s what they want. It’s what they come to the martial arts genre for in the first place.

All of this is a very elaborate way of saying that Into the Badlands is probably the very best non-zombie accompaniment to The Walking Dead that AMC could have ever dreamed up. These back-to-back  but different  genre series make for two pretty compelling hours of thrills (and, if you haven’t figured it out by now, buckets of blood).

Into the Badlands is a dystopian series created, written and executive produced by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with the first two episodes shown to critics directed by David Dobkin (The Judge, Wedding Crashers). Dobkin brings to life the odd ideas of Gough and Millar, who envisioned a world “centuries from now” that has been, through “a succession of natural and man-made catastrophes,” driven back to the agrarian era — and, for the purposes of Into the Badlands, situated somewhere in the American Midwest (this is, mind you, after billions of people have perished from the earth). Old American cars and motorcycles are in play, but mostly people appear to walk around or ride horses.

In Into the Badlands, seven rival “barons” have built plantations and territories that they rule, each producing a specific and necessary resource (grain, oil, etc.). The barons have tons of slave labor (called Cogs now), and each has an army of so-called Clippers, fierce, highly-trained warriors (most of them orphans) who are martial arts and sword/sharp-object masters and kill as their job (otherwise they’d be working in the fields). Before they are Clippers, they are teenage (and pre-teen) Colts, apprentices who spend all day and night learning how to kick ass.

If you haven’t guessed yet, Into the Badlands is first and foremost about kicking ass. There’s some story there, sure. In fact, the creators say its “very loosely based on the Chinese tale ‘Journey to the West,’” which suggests that part of Into the Badlands will be about journeying out of the badlands to the unknown areas of the world that are now the stuff of legends people hear about.

But in the first two episodes sent to critics, we meet the core group still in the titular badlands and not wanting to leave. They are Sunny (Daniel Wu), the most legendary Clipper and killer ever, tallying more than 400 kills since age 9 (each one a mark tattooed on his back). Sunny works for Baron Quinn (Marton Csokas), not surprisingly the most feared of the seven barons in the Badlands. We don’t get to meet any others except for The Widow (Emily Beecham), a redheaded martial artist and sharp weapons enthusiast (duh), who's training young female Clippers she calls Butterflies (after her baroness symbol). She’s going to challenge Quinn, because you need drama in a drama.

The link between the two barons is the mysterious teenage boy M.K. (Aramis Knight), found by Sunny but loved by The Widow’s own Butterfly Tilda (Alexia Ioannides), setting up that whole rival families/houses thing. M.K. possesses otherworldly powers of badassedness that emerge from him when his skin is cut (and he wakes up not knowing how many people he’s destroyed). Everybody wants to own or train him, but it’s Sunny who gets to make him a Colt, because the two orphans may actually come from  gasp  the same place (a city that M.K. remembers but Sunny does not  though you can rest assured it’s not in the badlands and will require a treacherous journey to reach).

Look, Into the Badlands features a number of familiar tropes, not least of which is the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon of it all. But it’s fun, it’s escapist thrill-seeking and, in its penchant for violence and blood, it’s a perfect companion series to The Walking Dead, while maintaining its own distinct identity.

What’s not to like here? Put the popcorn in and get the blood-splatter aprons out and let’s watch some martial arts and sword play!

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine