Into the Badlands Feels Like a Rough Draft of a TV Show

From left: Marton Csokas as Quinn, Oliver Stark as Ryder, and Daniel Wu as Sunny. Photo: Patti Perret/AMC

Great action and great atmosphere can excuse a lot. Unfortunately, Into the Badlands has little of the former and less of the latter.

This lavishly produced new series from Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Lethal Weapon 4, Shanghai Noon), which debuted Sunday, feels like another example (along with the lamentable Low Winter Sun) of AMC's tendency to bleed the grubby life out of the same material that seemingly fired its creators' imaginations. It's set in a postapocalyptic world ruled by warlords with armies of assassins who were raised to kill for their masters from birth onward (the adult killers are called Clippers; the young trainees, Colts). The warlords, called barons, live in strongholds with gigantic gates and high walls; the first one we see evokes a pre–Civil War plantation on the inside, and most of the owners dress in what looks like a hybrid of late Confederate fashion, Sergio Leone–influenced Old West garb, and the sorts of duds that Neo and his buddies wore when they battled the Agents in the Matrix trilogy. Guns are absent from the story, for now anyway. The characters do battle with swords, knives, lances, and the like, and with their fists and feet, twirling in the air with the help of wires and a mighty assist from the editors.

This all sounds terrific if you're into kung-fu films and Westerns, and there's nothing innately wrong with making the hero, the prolific assassin Sunny (Daniel Wu, of Man With the Iron Fists, among other Chinese films), a Clint Eastwood–style strong-quiet-surly badass. The problem is that at no point during the first couple of episodes does the show truly come alive as a drama about actual people inhabiting a convincing fictional space. It doesn't pulse with life, as any series defined mainly through its actions ought to. And when action does happen, it's disappointingly personality-free, with tight close-ups of fists and feet slamming into flesh doing the aesthetic heavy lifting in scenes that wouldn't have needed them if the action were more cleverly choreographed and photographed. You don't get a sense that there's a definable personality with a value system deciding what to show us, when, and for what reason — a sensibility that marks the difference between pretty good action and the kind that you want to shout about from the rooftops. It's handsome-looking and mildly exciting, for the most part. But in a year that has brought us the likes of John Wick, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the most recent Mission: Impossible — and a medium that has provided truly great action on a smaller scale, in series such as Breaking Bad, Arrow, and Strike Back — handsome-looking and mildly exciting won't do. The camera nearly always seems to be in the wrong place, jostling around or peering at showdowns through windowpanes or from too close or too far away.

I'm not crazy about Wu as a lead either, unfortunately. Though he's been tremendously effective in other roles, he seems too bland here, and the way the character is written, Sonny has no edge of attack dog menace, a quality that a character like this absolutely must have. Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name, Vin Diesel as Riddick, Mel Gibson or Tom Hardy as Max, all gave the audience a sense of tremendous existential weight even as the movie was winking at you a little bit. Wu seems like a decent fellow from the start, even with all the tattoos on his back marking the kills he's acquired in the name of his master and surrogate father, Quinn (Marton Czokas). Right out of the gate, the show lets you know that Sonny is not as hard as everyone thinks. "Killing that many people takes a toll on a man — even you, Sonny," his buddy Ringo (Yohance Myles) says. The compound's doctor (Madeleine Matlock), who is also Sonny's lover, tells him, "Buried under all this ink is a good man." Okay, okay, we get it, he's redeemable. And so Sonny eyes his city-symbol-coin-watch thing and stares meaningfully out at the horizon, perhaps remembering how much he enjoyed Waterworld.

The insistently multicultural casting is refreshing, and there's a burgeoning mythology having to do with the lands beyond the titular badlands, as well as a strain of mysticism represented by M.K. (Aramis Knight), sole survivor of the massacre that kicks off the pilot. (He must truly be the One, eh?)  And the show seems determined to provide more traditional soap-opera relationship intrigue for viewers who aren't all about the fight scenes, the competition between Quinn's wives and kids to be the apple of his eye has a touch of Big Love, though with more potentially lethal treachery. If only one of the seemingly quite capable actors assembled here had been given lines that didn't feel like placeholders for good lines that were supposed to be written later, but weren't.

You might have fun spotting the historical and film-historical resonances in the images and the production design and the costumes, and here and there you get a "wow" moment, like when M.K. kicks a tormentor into a wall mirror, shattering it, then plucks a shard from midair and hurls it like a throwing star, or when Sonny runs an enemy through with a sword during a battle next to a parked car and the camera dips down to catch the blade passing through the driver's-side door. But these pleasures are few and far between. The show feels like a memo that was then funded and shot and aired. And maybe that's what it's all about, ultimately. As a Vanity Fair profile of the star notes, "it was Wu, in his capacity as executive producer, who helped sell the show to an international distributor and ensure Into the Badlands would air in Asia the same time it debuted in the States. But, of course, it isn’t just the lucrative Asian market that Wu and AMC are hoping to capture. The show, with its intricate mythology, memorable costumes, and specialized vocabulary, seems tailor-made for the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead–loving Comic-Con crowd." We'll see.