AMC is no stranger to the genre of post-apocalyptic television, with “The Walking Dead” possessing the highest total viewership in cable history. But in the first scene of AMC’s new series, “Into the Badlands,” Daniel Wu confronts a group of nondescript apocalypse-ians in a red leather trenchcoat, sporting shades. He’s just rolled up on a gold-plated motorcycle, and you know in your heart of hearts that he is about to kick some major bandit ass.
Already, there’s reason to suspect that this isn’t going to be like other entries into the increasingly swollen post-apocalypse genre. And right away, your suspicions are confirmed: the ensuing fight bucks all sweaty, dirty, desperate convention. His assailants’ may sport rusty, spiked weapons, but Wu carries a gleaming sword into battle, which he promptly leaves back at his motorcycle, along with his shades, because either might get in the way while he is beating all of them to death with his bare hands.
The scene is filmed in wide-angle, direct shots, with refreshingly few of the cuts or shaky camera work often used in filmed fight sequences as smoke screens, to cover up the awkward flailing of a lead actor without much fighting experience. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Daniel Wu has done this before. A lot, actually.
Though Wu’s quick fists haven’t graced the reels of many American films, he’s been a leading man in Hong Kong film for over a decade, despite being born and raised in America. He’s previously signed on with Jackie Chan’s agency and worked extensively with the former martial arts superstar, with Chan going so far as to say that Wu was “like a son.”
But even a great performer like Wu needs an expert choreographic hand, which is where Stephen Fung comes in. Fung acted opposite Wu in the latter’s first feature film, and has worked with him repeatedly over the years; for “Into the Badlands,” he won’t be appearing as an actor but serves instead as the Fight Director. Fung has a history of working with the great choreographers of the genre, such as Yuen Wo Ping, the legendary hand behind the “Kill Bill” and “Matrix” choreography.
When choreographing the fights for “Into the Badlands,” Fung has relied on techniques he learned in the world of Hong Kong cinema. Improvisation between skilled fighters, for example, is often used in place of more specific choreography. Speaking about the difference between Western fight choreography and the style he’s adopted for “Into the Badlands,” Fung noted how “the rhythm is different. Hong Kong is very ‘fight, fight, fight,’ but then you break up and go into a stance. So at the end of the day it’s not about which martial arts style is being used, it’s about what looks cool.” And cool it looks: the fights in Episodes 1 and 2 hold up to the standard set by Fung’s choreographic tradition.
“Into the Badlands” isn’t strictly inspired by Hong Kong cinema, though. While it’s only ever referred to as “the Badlands,” the show was largely filmed in the extremely visually recognizable American South. Early in the first episode, Wu cruises his Harley down Oak Alley, one of Louisiana’s most famous views, to arrive at the plantation-turned-fort belonging to his boss, the Baron Quinn. Quinn is a Southern preacher type, complete with vest, suspenders and a molassesy drawl. In his first moment on screen, he hefts a Bible above a crowd of young boys. He disavows the notion of a higher power pretty quickly after that, but the visual cue is clear enough.
The aesthetics of “Into the Badlands” duel and crash with a lot less grace than Wu and the many folk he beats bloody, though. Watching Quinn smoke from an opium pipe or cavort with his new mistress (a blonde belle type inexplicably named Jade) feel like blunt and surface-level attempts to graft a Hong Kong aura onto more than just the fight scenes and camerawork.
Almost accidentally, the conflicting styles of “Into the Badlands” hits on its most questionable feature coming out of the gates: the specter of cultural appropriation. This is a show grounded in Eastern culture, based on a 16th century Chinese novel (“Journey Into the West”), and created by two white men, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. It’s exciting to see pedigreed staples of the Hong Kong martial arts world like Wu and Fung involved, but disappointing that they seem to be the only Chinese people involved in the project. Like Wu’s wandering warrior Sunny, they appear to be some of the only people of color in a very white world.
At the very least, the heart and soul of the show — the beautiful pummel-fests delivered by Wu and directed by Fung — remain in safe, furious hands. The show may be new and untested, but these fight scenes are decades in the making.
“Into the Badlands” premieres Sunday at 10pm on AMC.