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AMC Tries to Kick Things Up with Martial Arts Drama Into the Badlands

But is there more to the show than the fighting?

Adam Bryant

When you have a monster hit on your network, it's easier to take risks -- and AMC is certainly putting that theory to the test.

Just weeks after renewing one its lowest-rated dramas ever for an improbable third season, the network that's home to The Walking Dead (and, now, its spin-off) is taking its biggest gamble yet on the martial arts drama Into the Badlands (Sunday at 10/9c, AMC). For starters, it's the first show AMC has ever ordered straight to series without seeing a pilot. And thanks to the sheer number of intricately choreographed fight scenes, it's also perhaps the most ambitious series the cable channel has put on air.

"Once we started doing it, we figured out why no one's ever done it on TV," star and executive producer Daniel Wu tells TVGuide.com with a laugh. "To be able to do this level of action is crazy hard because the TV schedule is so tight. My experience in the past of doing martial arts films is to do three or four fight scenes over six months. We did 12 fight scenes in four months. The rain fight in the pilot is an homage to The Grandmaster. That rain fight took them 30 days to film; we shot ours in 6 days. So, it felt like making a Hong Kong movie, but we had to move really f---ing fast."

AMC orders martial arts drama Into the Badlands straight to series

Created by Smallville's Alfred Gough and Milles Millar and loosely based on the classic Chinese folktale Journey to the West, Badlands takes place in a future that feels decidedly like the past. In the wake of civilization's destruction, guns have been banned and a feudal society has emerged that is governed by seven barons, each of whom defend their territory with an army of sword-wielding assassins known as clippers. The deadliest clipper is Sunny (Wu), who was raised from childhood by Quinn (Marton Csokas) and is now Quinn's most trusted advisor in addition to being his chief ass-kicker.

But just pulling off the high-intensity martial arts sequences wasn't the only challenge facing the show in the early going: The creative team also had trouble finding a leading man. "You're looking for someone who is not only an actor, but is basically a professional athlete," says Wu, who originally joined the project only as a producer to help with the fights. "I had not included myself in the casting because I knew the amount of fights we have per episode. This season, Sunny fights in 11 out of the 12 fights. I was already pushing 40, and I was like, 'We should be looking for someone who can last five or six seasons.' The fights we do, not even Jackie Chan or Jet Li do that amount of fights in that amount of time."
But after some encouragement from his fellow producers and six months of training, Wu, who had taken a break from making martial arts films for the previous six years, decided to take on the role. "It was extremely challenging. It was the most difficult project I've ever worked on," he says. "I needed to be in two places at once. We had a fight unit that was running five days a week, and we had the drama unit shooting five days a week. I'm not only in almost all the fights, but I'm also in about 80 percent of the scenes, so I'm needed on both sets all the time. There was never a break for me."

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But there's more to Sunny than just kicking the crap out of bad guys. Once Sunny rescues a young boy named M.K. (Aramis Knight) who speaks of a world beyond the Badlands, he begins to wonder if the grass might be greener elsewhere. Further complicating matters, Sunny also learns that his girlfriend Veil (Madeleine Mantock) is expecting their child -- even though the law forbids clippers from having a family. As such, Sunny sets out to find a way to escape the Badlands with M.K. and Veil and start anew.

"In the great tradition of all of the AMC heroes like Don Draper and Walter White, Sunny is going through a midlife crisis," Millar says. "He's an assassin, so he's quite good at killing people, but he's reached a point in his life where he realizes that that's not what he wants to do. ... We really wanted our hero to have a very real and relatable point of uncertainty. The story is really his quest to find meaning in his life. I think that's something that, for us, feels very universal and very human. Even though it's a brutal, bloody world, the beating heart of the series is the characters."

It remains to be seen, however, if Sunny can truly leave that old life behind him. "He's got blood on his hands," Millar says. "How does he find a sense of forgiveness for himself and redemption from the world?" Adds Gough: "He doesn't believe he's a good person. When he starts, he's not only a product of this power structure, he's really high up in it. He's very complicit in what this world does and what goes on. What you see through the course of the first season is the cracks in Sunny's exterior and the fissures of goodness that start to emerge through the course of this journey. This is Breaking Good."

But it won't be an easy path. While Sunny begins making his plans to leave, Quinn, who is losing his grip on his territory because of his failing health, faces the threat of a rival baron known as The Widow (Emily Beecham). "Her husband was very abusive, not only to her, but to all those girls that she's now taken under her wing," Gough says. "She's on her own crusade to not only seize power for her territory, but to also really be a disruptor in this world and to topple these power structures." Adds Millar: "She sees herself as a liberator, but the methods she uses are just as bad as [Quinn]. No one is black and white in this world. It's very much this complex, ambiguous sense of morality and methodology about how you achieve power and control. Her motives may be good, but her methods are questionable to say the least."

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Ultimately, Sunny is faced with a choice: flee the Badlands and protect your burgeoning family or stay and fight for his baron. And while the choice may seem obvious, Sunny will struggle with turning his back on Quinn. "For Sunny, he's definitely a father figure," Millar says. "He raised him, in an incredibly twisted way, from a child soldier into his right-hand man. There's a very deep, twisted complex relationship between Sunny and Quinn, and it's real and emotional. When Sunny has to break free of that, it's very, very difficult. It's almost as if Sunny's been brainwashed by this relationship."
Unfortunately for the show, these machinations are, at least in the early going, not as interesting as one might have hoped -- especially in contrast to the amazing fight sequences. But with only six episodes in the first season, you can easily sample what's there and decide if you'd like to keep going. And really, the fight sequences are so magnificent, they alone are worth your time, thanks to the direction and choreography by Stephen Fung and Didi Ku, the protégé of fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix, Kill Bill).

"It's like jazz," Millar says. "They get to the set and riff on what we've written and come up with the sequence as a whole. The whole reason to do this show was to bring authentic martial arts to television. To do that required bringing in the best teams from Hong Kong and China and assembling this crew of amazing martial artists and stunt men who bring these scenes to life and really set the show apart. There's nothing like this on television."

Into the Badlands airs Sundays at 10/9c on AMC.