'Into the Badlands': Inside TV's Martial-Arts Genre Mash-Up

"We want to do for martial-arts stories what 'The Walking Dead' did for zombies," says show's co-creator

Daniel Wu, star of AMC's 'Into the Badlands.' Credit: James Minchin III/AMC

A man on a motorcycle blazes down a long, empty road, framed by fiery poppy fields. The rider, wearing a leather duster stained the deep crimson of dried blood, a sword slung across his back, doesn't seem fazed by a line of corpses littered on the lane's shoulder. The stranger barely blinks when he encounters a large group of surly bandits, quickly demolishing the gang in a showcase of shattered joints, broken spines, and slashing blades; one unlucky sap is impaled on the spit for his own roast pig.

Then the stoic warrior finds a teenager trapped in a trunk. The two will go back to a plantation straight out of the antebellum South, run by someone named "The Baron." He's currently training an army of professional killers known as "clippers" and warring with a woman known only as "The Widow." More violence, naturally, awaits.

Welcome to Into the Badlands, the ambitious new six-episode series from AMC that combines American Westerns, samurai epics, Chinese folk tales, Hong Kong action flicks, and not-so-distant-future postapocalyptic tales into one huge genre mash-up. Starring Daniel Wu as the stoic bladeslinger (name: Sunny) and featuring a team of veteran HK-cinema fight co-ordinators, it's an attempt to bring the fists-of-fury mayhem and wire-fu adrenaline rush of martial-arts movies to the small screen.

"It's an area that hasn't really been explored," co-creator Miles Millar says. "We want to do for martial-arts stories what The Walking Dead did for zombies, in terms of looking at it as a real drama. Basically: What is the humanity of that situation? And how would you approach that for television?"

The origins of the show date back to a conversation producer Stacey Sher had with AMC's President of Original Programming Joel Stillerman at the premiere of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. According to her, the executive "casually mentioned he was looking for a companion piece to The Walking Dead that would be a martial arts series." Sher had ties to Hong Kong talent, and quickly put together a team including Wu and producer/fight director Stephen Fung. She also brought on Smallville creators Millar and Al Gough, who — having cut their teeth writing films like Shanghai Noon — had been aching to do a legitimate martial arts TV show.

The duo were also huge fans of the popular Lone Wolf and Cub films, in which a masterless samurai and a little boy wander through the rural outskirts of feudal Japan, slicing through anyone who gets in their way. That mentor-student dynamic helped form the basis for Badlands' central relationship, between the jaded killer Sunny and M.K. (played by Aramis Knight), the young man in the trunk who possesses a strange, otherworldly power and becomes sought after by both sides. "Those movies were a huge influence for us [on this]," Millar confirms. "That guy, the kid — and the arterial spray."

To be sure, Badlands doesn't shrink away from the sort of blood-soaked brutality that's made lead-in show a huge hit. While it may not hit the gory Grand Guignol heights of The Walking Dead, it certainly doesn't skimp on the Type O — a barroom ambush in the second episode ends with Emily Beechum's villainous widow rapidly Ginsu-ing an attacker and opening up numerous spurting veins. But it's the extraordinary fight scenes that make the series stand out, and Gough and Millar had a second-unit team working on the various wuxia set pieces while the main crew was simultaneously filming the dramatic sequences.

"We were upfront with AMC about this: If you want really great martial arts, you've got to have time," Millar says, in regards to the doubling-up method of filming. "That's how you get an action sequence like that 'rain fight' in the first episode, which took 10 days to shoot. You have to do it authentically. Our people have to be on camera as much as possible. That's one of the big differences between American and Chinese action sequences: With the latter, you see people doing things in wide shots. When you see Daniel fighting, it's not frenetic. It's elegant."

Both the showrunners and the star were admant that the martial-arts component felt organic and real, and not given the typical Hollywood treatment — what Gough cheekily describes as "Hong Kong cop comes to America, kicks guns out of people's hands and suddenly everyone miraculously knows kung fu." Most of the Badlands cast had no fighting experience — which necessitated a six-week crash course by action-unit director Stephen Fung and martial-arts coordinator Huan-Chiu "Dee Dee" Ku, who also trained actors for films such as The Matrix and Kill Bill. "You can't make someone a martial-arts expert in six weeks," says Wu, who started studying wushu when he was 11 years old. "But you can get them looking pretty good, and Dee Dee was great at seeing what the actors were already good at, then focusing on that. If we make the fights look exciting to us, then a regular person off the street will be impressed as well."

But despite the abundance of acrobatic ass-kicking and liberal use of Caro syrup, everyone involved stresses that Into the Badlands isn't just endless beatdowns and carnage for carnage's sake. Millar is quick to point out that, among the show's myriad of influences, the key inspiration for him and Gough was the Chinese novel Journey to the West, in which a hero known as the Monkey King (a.k.a. Sun Wukong — where Sunny gets his name) goes on a quest to bring sacred sutras from India to China. "It's a spiritual journey for enlightenment," he says, and emphasizes that their protagonist will experience something similar as he delves further into his past.

And an as avowed fan of Bruce Lee, Wu immediately namedrops the 1970s show Kung Fu — a project Lee originated in order to showcase a more philosophical side of martial arts before network executives began meddling with his vision. "More than anything, I'd like this to be the show he wasn't allowed to do" he says. "It's not about kicking someone's ass; it's about trying to center yourself as a person. And it's important to me that, along with everything else in the show, the spiritual side of kung fu comes through. If there's nothing but a bunch of beautiful, violent action...then you're missing the whole point of martial arts."