Pilot Review: Into the Badlands Is Far From Sleepy!

Into the Badlands (ITB) takes me back to my childhood when I watched Kung Foo movies on rainy days and would attempt some kicks of my own. Too old and out of shape for those kicks now, I rewind the fight sequences not to compare them to those in my memory bank, but to simply marvel at how bruising they are and how much they say about how our culture has changed.

Long gone are the poorly synched English dubbed martial movies. This show’s action sequences are lengthy and beautifully choreographed and shot. They are joint breaking, sword slicing, body flying feats. This is primarily a martial arts show, though its showrunners are Smallville’s  Alfred Gough and Miles Millar

The pilot is visually stunning from the sweeping shot of the fields of poppy to the winding stairs of the estate and the Antebellum South/futuristic costumes. The Badlands is a complex world several centuries in the future with cogs, slaves, colts, clippers and feuding barons. We learn much of this in the first few minutes of the pilot.

The wars were so long ago no one even remembers. Darkness and fear ruled until the time of the Barons. Seven men and women who forged order out of chaos. People flock to them for protection; that protection became certainly. They banished guns and trained armies of lethal fighters they called clippers. This world is built on blood. Nobody is innocent here. Welcome to Bedlands. Voice-over Introduction

ITB is a genre-bending show flawlessly combining action, Science-fiction and historical drama. Loosely based on Journey to the West, it is set in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic time.  Sunny (Daniel Wu) and a young boy named M.K. (Aramis Knight) journey to Azra, but they must travel across the Badlands where seven barons feud for land, money and power.

Like ABC’s Quantico, ITB poached a well-established foreign star. Sunny, Daniel Wu, is a complex man who is equal parts detective, butcher and bait. His ability to track and dismantle the gang of misfits who high-jacked the cogs (human cargo) is impressive, especially considering he did not use his swords but he butchered their bodies nonetheless. Though his name may be a tip of the hat to martial artists and actor Sonny Chiba, he has the calm and steady gaze of Clint Eastwood or Timothy Olyphant in Hitman or Justified. When he removes his  sunglasses and sword, well, he announces the destruction that is to come. Wu does a good job of maintaining the cool facade with anger bubbling beneath.

It is clear that Sunny is not only the best clipper, lethal fighter, but Baron Quinn (Marton Csokas) uses him to bait the Colts (clippers in training) into his servitude. In a scene reminiscent of Outlander or any Slavery movie, Baron Quinn holds Sunny out as a possession and motivator. As Quinn says during the colts indoctrination, “Some see Clippers as cold, heartless killers, but the men that fill this foil are more than that. They are my family…a clippers loyalty is to his Baron…in return you get the best of everything: food, weapons, women.” Baron Quinn is the worst kind of sociopath, as he wraps his greed and narcissism in his basterized religion. He charms, cajoles, tricks and if needed forces people into servitude to protect and build his fiefdom. As his power wanes, he seeks a second wife and unknowingly opens his fiefdom to a serpent name Jade.

into the bedlandsAs Sunny, Daniel Wu, excels in the action scenes, particularly the desert and the rain scenes. He twists and breaks joints in ways that only an orthopedic surgeon or anatomy student can truly appreciate, and when he is surrounded by no fewer than nine misfits he takes them out in ways Jackie Chan would be impressed. This action scenes is only surpassed by the Matrix like scene in which the young MK catches a flying piece of glass and quickly hurls it with dart-like precision in the eye of his opponent. MK’s transformation from boy to deadly warrior isn’t visually exciting but the action scene makes-up for it. This illustrates the show’s inability to let loose. It would have been more interesting if animation or a stylized scene was used to show how blood turns him into a clipper like fighter.

pendant into the bedlandsThis episode explored the many ways people lose their innocence and use others to magnify their own wealth or power. While Quinn is obviously the most egregious in this area, we also learn that Jade, Ryder, Lydia, The Widow, Sunny and even MK has blood on his hands.  Undoubtedly the remaining five episodes this season will focus on MK and Sunny’s relationship. Sunny was drawn to protecting MK before he learned that they may share a history in Azra.

  • Will MK and Veil help Sunny lift the weight of the deaths he carries in his heart and on his tattooed back?
  • Will Sunny help MK and Veil leave the Badlands for Azra?
  • Will Quinn’s family succeed in their coup d’état?
  • What does Quinn and his wife know about Azra?
  • Do the pendant and compass hold power?

Though this is from the producers of Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained, the dialogue isn’t Tarantian. One may even call the dialogue pedestrian or functional. Viewers will tune in for the action, historical drama and science fiction, but not the dialogue. However, Into the Badlands is one of the best pilots this year. It is fresh conceptually, the story telling is engaging and the pilot’s pacing and completeness illustrates the creators’ ability to refrain from the unnecessary bells and whistles that so many pilots use.  The show embraces much of what I loved about kung fu movies as a kid, but avoids what I despise as an adult. It acknowledges the multicultural world we live in and the leadership ability of women. I am thrilled to see that  the pilot is the number three cable launch of the year and of all time; no doubt it owes some of this to its lead-in, The Walking Dead. I am eager to watch the remaining episodes of Into the Badlands!

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