The eruptive action sequences in AMC's post-apocalyptic "Into the Badlands" are pretty special, compared with a lot of the hollow fight scenes on TV. They're the kind of martial arts battles that turn lethal kicks and torso spins into gravity-defying ballet — think "Kill Bill," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and other movies sacred to lovers of the genre. The scenes, which pop up every 10 minutes or so, are the result of precise choreography, of course, but they always appear to be on the verge of mayhem. After an hour of midair twists and soaring battle axes, you almost think it's conceivable that a single person could take down a dozen attackers.
The lead fighter in this AMC six-part series is a guy named Sunny (Daniel Wu), whose name is ironic. He's a grim, stoic fellow who slices and dices with the mechanical endurance of a Veg-O-Matic. He has one tattoo mark on his back for each of the hundreds of people he has killed, and soon he'll need to expand his indelible record onto his chest. Sunny's body is so taut, his moves so intentional, you almost expect to hear whooshes when he walks. I'm not a devotee when it comes to martial arts fight scenes, with their acrobatic intensity and their slow-sailing blood spatter, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching Sunny and his many enemies ascend and descend in visual rhythm.
How I wish the rest of "Into the Badlands" rose to the occasion of the phenomenal choreography. The story lines and the characters aren't disastrous, by any means, but they're disappointing as they fall into the action, post-apocalyptic, and family-soap formulas we've seen many, many times before. I spotted too many borrowings to name, from "The Hunger Games," "Mad Max," "The Road," "Game of Thrones," AMC's own "The Walking Dead," and even the melodramatic "Empire" in the course of the first two episodes that AMC made available for review. It takes almost no time to know who's good, who's bad, and who's — wait, they're all either one or the other.
The story, loosely based on a 16th-century Chinese novel called "Journey to the West," is set in a postwar future that, like many dystopias in entertainment, has dirt-caked, primitive stylings along with motorcycles and fashion sunglasses. Sunny wears a red leather maxi-coat that makes him look like a cool dragonfly. There are seven territories in the Badlands, and each is ruled by a feudal baron. The most powerful is Quinn (Martin Csokas), and Sunny is his "clipper," his henchman. The ruthless Quinn is in a few pickles when the series begins. He is dying, but his only son, Ryder (Oliver Stark), is a sloppy, envious young man who's ill-equipped to take over. Also, another baron, called The Widow (Emily Beecham), is wily and ambitious and about to make a move on Quinn. She's a steampunk pain in the neck.
Oddly, show creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar ("Smallville") have chosen to put Quinn's camp in a Southern plantation-style enclave, and Csokas speaks in an exaggerated Southern drawl that is unintentionally amusing. When he makes statements such as, "Boys, there is no God in the Badlands," you might accidentally think of "Hillbilly Handfishin' " or some other Southern reality TV farce. I suppose we should be grateful Quinn doesn't have a German accent, but still, it doesn't work. Perhaps Gough and Millar were trying to evoke the days of slavery, as Quinn rules his army of clippers and "colts" — cadets — with an iron first? Perhaps they thought that a Southern motif would add charm? It's not clear. But it only adds a perverse sense of randomness to the otherwise cowboyish Badlands setting.
Sunny is bad, but not as bad as Quinn, and he decides to secretly aid a young man named M.K. (Aramis Knight). Turns out a lot of evil people are after M.K. because he has a superheroic ability to fight that is unleashed whenever his skin is cut. The Widow, in particular, is hoping she can own him and use him against Quinn for the win. We're supposed to be rooting for M.K. and Sunny, as they form a redemptive father-and-son-like bond, but it would be like rooting for two pieces of wood, they are so emotionally unengaging.
Also in the mix: Quinn's first of many wives, the familiar Lady Macbeth type named Lydia (Orla Brady), who is rooting for Ryder as the next baron. Like everyone else on "Into the Badlands," she's just an average way to kill time between the acts of a graceful ballet.
INTO THE BADLANDS
Starring Daniel Wu, Aramis Knight, Marton Csokas, Emily Beecham, Oliver Stark, Orla Brady, Madeline Mantock. On AMC. Sunday,