The action scenes scattered throughout “Into the Badlands” are not just stirringly presented, they represent a test passed with flying — and bloody — colors. This efficient AMC series is an homage to classic Samurai films and kinetic action fare churned out by Hong Kong maestros of furious fists, and if the TV drama had failed to meet the standards set by the sturdiest examples of those genres, it would have seemed superfluous at best. Fortunately, star Daniel Wu is more than up to the task of occupying the center of this streamlined story of vengeance, tyranny and roundhouse kicks.
Well-deployed Louisiana locations are used to sketch out a retro-flavored vision of the future in which, after a period of massive unrest, large swathes of territory are controlled by seven barons who control key resources and employ large armies. It’s a good thing the barons — whose ranks include an ambitious woman known as the Widow — have lots of fighters in reserve: In the first two episodes of “Into the Badlands,” any number of them are dispatched by Sunny, the precise yet ferocious warrior played by Wu.
Sunny is the chief counsel and first lieutenant to a baron named Quinn, a role Marton Csokas tears into like a hungry man at a barbecue shack. Very little about Quinn or the show is subtle, but that’s not a dig at this kind of fare, which is meant to be melodramatic and packed with saturated colors and accessible metaphors. The world of the barons and their lackeys is one of desperation and restraint, just as the energetic action sequences are a mixture of balletic gestures and brutal punishment. Speaking of those scenes, don’t seek out the clips that have been posted as online teasers: These exactingly choreographed moments deserve to be seen on a big TV in their full high-definition glory.
Wu has the charisma and the action chops to play a quiet man who can believably dish out punishment that reflects disciplined training and a tenacious will. Sunny is the kind of character that is standard in this genre: He’s got a mysterious past, a complicated present and mulls a future free of an erratic and dangerous boss. Wu brings soulful presence and watchful energy to Sunny, who also has to contend with what “Game of Thrones” fans would call a Joffrey problem. Like a Lannister, Baron Quinn may be cutthroat, but he’s a canny strategist as well. His son Ryder, on the other hand, is half as intelligent as his father and much more impulsive and spoiled.
Emily Beecham is convincingly driven as the treacherous Widow, who gets a satisfying action sequence of her own in the second episode, and one hopes Orla Brady, who brings depth and texture to any role, will get more to do as Quinn’s observant wife.
Reservations about “Into the Badlands” center on supporting roles; it’s unclear if a set of younger characters will be as compelling as the ones played by the more seasoned actors. M.K. (Aramis Knight), an orphan who repeatedly crosses Sunny’s path, is the least impressive part of the show’s first two installments. All the characters are more or less archetypes in the early going, which is only appropriate for an actioner focused on vibrant visuals and clanking swords. But if the six-episode first season is to beat back ferocious competition for viewers’ eyeballs, M.K. can’t remain a callow and underwritten plot device for long.
All in all, however, “Into the Badlands” is a welcome addition to the television scene, especially with action-heavy dramas like “Strike Back” and “Banshee” either finished or on the way out. AMC may no longer visit the subtle and complicated realms of “Mad Men’s” corner offices, but this pleasing drama hits it target with admirable force.