Lots of entertainment is geared to teenage boys, but “Into the Badlands” feels like it was actually dreamed up by a few of them. Full of bloody action, badass characters and more than a little cheese, this AMC action-drama isn’t particularly nuanced, but it’s consistently pulpy fun, with just about every creative decision seemingly made based on how cool it would be. Though hampered by its fanboy limitations, this tale of a lone-wolf martial-arts warrior succeeds on its own comic-book-goofy terms, never worrying if anyone outside the target audience will ever tune in.
Judged on the merits of two episodes, “Into the Badlands” will go as far as creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar‘s combination of ultra-slick fight scenes and palace-intrigue plotting can take it. Early on, the show establishes that our world has returned to a feudal system after a series of devastating wars that prompted those left alive to outlaw guns. But in a development that will no doubt cheer NRA defenders, the lack of firearms isn’t keeping the populace from laying waste to one another: Knives, machetes, swords and axes all do major damage in the Badlands.
Our hero is Sunny (Daniel Wu), a feared warrior who serves a power-hungry Baron named Quinn (Marton Csokas). Sunny’s the kind of chin-stroking soldier who can kill a dozen enemies singlehandedly with ruthless, balletic grace when he’s not spending his quieter moments wondering if it’s time to get out the assassin game. His personal crossroads comes into view when he encounters a young man (Aramis Knight) known only as M.K., who is on the run and wanted by Quinn’s chief rival Baron, The Widow (Emily Beecham), because of a special fighting power he possesses. Loyal to Quinn but wanting to help this boy escape the deadly world of the Badlands, Sunny takes M.K. on as a protégé in order to protect him.
The show’s jumble of influences can be felt in its mishmash setting, which is supposed to be centuries in the future but features mid-20th-century cars and modern-day martial-arts fighting styles. In addition, although “Into the Badlands” sports some post-apocalyptic overtones, the bucolic locales — the show was shot in Louisiana — make it feel like a lush paradise, adding to the series’ winningly schizophrenic vibe.
Working with director David Dobkin, Gough and Millar (who previously created “Smallville” and wrote Dobkin’s film “Shanghai Knights”) cross-pollinate soap-opera melodrama with gonzo hand-to-hand combat scenes. Just about everyone in “Into the Badlands” is hiding some sort of secret — a pregnancy, a mistress, an agenda, a fatal illness — and Dobkin and fight director Stephen Fung intercut the tawdry, page-turning plot points with a steady stream of almost comically elaborate action sequences. (Don’t worry how long you’ll have to wait for a kung-fu showdown during a gorgeously-lit downpour: “Into the Badlands” knocks that out in the pilot.)
Throughout the first two episodes, there are plenty of indications this show won’t ever enter deep thematic or emotional territory, instead preferring superficial thrills. This is the sort of lowbrow series where the action heroines dress in tight leather and show off ample cleavage, while generic male thugs indicate they’re disposable bad guys by grunting and spitting disgustingly before being slaughtered by the good guys. Pungent dialogue is delivered through sneers or with stone-faced earnestness. In other words, “Into the Badlands” is chockablock with fizzy genre pleasures, never mocking the conventions or its own self-important ludicrousness.
With such a show, presence matters more than subtlety in the performances, and the leads all provide forcefully one-dimensional turns. Wu projects a dignified calm, giving Sunny just enough shading so that his character’s stereotypically world-weary tone has a little resonance. Csokas has just the right look for the volatile, regal Quinn, setting up hopes that this dastardly Baron will continue to be a deliciously menacing figure. As for the rest of the cast, they coalesce in the mind’s eye into a pleasant lump of handsome or beautiful faces. “Into the Badlands” may not have a ton of smarts, but so far it’s a twisty, agreeable distraction.