To a certain degree, Into the Badlands, AMC’s new martial-arts series starring Danny Wu, delivers on the kicks its promotional material has highlighted so prominently. The fights are marked by swift, breathless moments of hand-to-hand (or sword-to-sword) combat, and when the series leans on the sheer spectacle of such physically stunning actions, there’s a potent exuberance in the lethal bits of violence. Unfortunately, the entire world of the series, courtesy of Wedding Crashers helmer David Dobkin, is colored and stylized as if it’s a piece of rock candy. In vision, Into the Badlands is garish to say the least, and though it thankfully evades slowing down the narrative by building up a bloated season-long arc, the series is still too self-serious in its melodramatic leanings to transcend the general goofiness of its look.
Armed with a sword and various vaguely steampunk gadgets, Sunny (Wu) carries out all sorts of violence called for by his master, Quinn (Martin Csokas), who spends his days looking over his fiefdom. The show’s writers have concocted a world where territories are ruled over by bosses rather than local municipalities, and everything outside these territories is considered the “badlands” of the title. It’s a promising narrative canvas that gets stuck in an uninventive cycle of set pieces and sequences that do little more than exhaustively remind the audience of how cruel and calculating commanders like Quinn are in maintaining their kingdoms. The writers offer no real insight into why Quinn is so accustomed and comfortable with torture and slaughter, settling for an uncomplicated portrait of a villain who Wu’s not-so-righteous hero will no doubt have to face off with at some point.
The narrative hinges largely on Sunny’s relationship with young M.K. (Aramis Knight), a mysterious adolescent he picks up in the opening sequence of the pilot, and the pact he has with Quinn, the forging of which is one of the show’s big looming questions. Like Game of Thrones, much of the expositional drama reinforces how treacherous the bosses have become, conspiring to off one another if the faintest scent of weakness is sensed, but Into the Badlands is short on the expansive scope of HBO’s juggernaut. Rather, it wastes quite a lot of time detailing a bit of palace intrigue, including a irksomely rote power struggle between Quinn and his son, Ryder (Oliver Stark), that only seem to allow the characters to tread the proverbial water until the next bloody exchanges of fists, blades, or bullets.
The show’s own mythology, and lack of visual rhythm in the editing and compositions, gives it a kind of fatigue, one that similarly dulled the cheap yet lovingly executed thrills of a number of recent martial-arts films, including The Man with the Iron Fists and the disappointing Ip Man series. The ambitions of the story, to trace the social structure and politics of an invented world ruled by the law of violence and physical domination, are limited tremendously by the show’s incessant need to reiterate its key mysteries, such as the origins of M.K. or the fate of Sunny’s family, both old and new. For all the agility on display in Into the Badlands, the series feels narratively uncertain, stuck between the simple pleasures of genre staples and the sadly unfulfilled aspiration toward a more imaginative, substantive work of stylized fantasy.