Posted by Brian David-Marshall | Hollywood, TV

Excited but nervous was how I would describe my reaction to seeing the trailer for AMC’s newest show that debuted last night in the ultra cushy time slot right after WALKING DEAD. Excited, because the trailer was visually stunning and the action scenes conjured up memories of Shaw Brothers martial arts flicks that would air weekend afternoons on Channel 5 growing up. Nervous because…well…let’s just say they focused squarely on the art direction and the fight choreography in those commercials.

The show opens on a motorcycle ripping through a field of bright red poppies while exposition washes over you about how nobody can remember the time before the chaos that led to a feudal state with seven barons ruling the world in (and I am just guessing here ) an uneasy alliance. Guns have been outlawed and order is enforced by armies of men known as Clippers. As we meet Sunny, our Clipper (and again, I am assuming here) with a heart of gold, he is pulling up to the corpse of another Clipper with a hatchet stuck in his forehead. There is an overturned truck and a row of dead prisoners, their throats sliced.

One prisoner is missing and Sunny immediately spots a fire nearby and drives to investigate. And by investigate I mean “kick the living shit out a dozen nomads” camped around a fire. They end up giving their lives to protect the contents of a trunk. Sunny takes the men out one by one without even seeming like he is in any danger of getting a scratch. He runs up the trunk of a tree and flips over assailants, he disembowels multiple people with their own weapons, and never even needs to reach for his sword which he confidently left leaning against his bike when he approached the group.

And this is all before the opening title sequence which left me scrambling to IMDB to find out more about Daniel Wu who plays Sunny. (I learned that he was born in the US, was in a Hong Kong boy bond, once dated Maggie Q, and has made a LOT of a martial arts films in his career.) When he opens the trunk a young, scared boy — M.K. — pops out and tries to run away but Sunny quickly subdues him. The boy wakes up as Sunny is burying the bodies that the nomads had left behind when the kidnapped him. The boy reveals that someone known as The Widow paid them to find him. The boy asks to be let go but Sunny says he is going to be taken back to The Fort to work in his Baron’s poppy fields.

The Fort is surrounded by serfs working in the beautiful — seriously they look amazing — poppy fields. Inside the fort we see an army of clippers, that would make the Gramercy Riffs think twice, doing their exercises. Sunny tells M.K. that he will be fighting among the Colts — Clippers in training — and brings him to hear Quinn, the Baron of the The Fort, address the young Clipper-wannabes. Quinn is played by Marton Csokas, who was the breakout villain in THE EQUALIZER, and he plays the part one part antebellum slave owner and one part SOHO hipster, telling these young men that “there is no God in the Badlands”. Quinn is the only person who can offer them a path out of debt and misery. They can fight their way to become a Clipper and if they become a Clipper they become like family. He shows the boys Sunny’s back which is tattoo adorned with a tick mark for every life he has taken in the service of the Baron. Sunny was once a pathetic wretch like them but Quinn took him in and forged him into the man standing before them today. He promises that such a fate could await them as well.

M.K. has attracted special attention from the Baron because of his mention of The Widow. The boy has no knowledge of why anyone would be interested in him. Quinn cautions him against lying and sends him to fight in the pits to take his measure. Meanwhile, Quinn’s son, Ryder approaches his father and urges him to take action against The Widow. Sunny is opposed and clearly has more influence over the Quinn than his own flesh and blood. Ryder’s does a lot of glowering in Sunny’s direction.

M.K. hesitantly walks toward the pits but before he can do anything he is ambushed by Ajax, who we saw during Quinn’s motivational speech was eager to become a Clipper. Ajax tears a medallion from around M.K.’s neck and challenges him to take it back. The two begin fighting but it is broken up by Sunny who sees the bronze medallion, which depicts an urban skyline that looks suspiciously like New York City, and has a jolt of recognition. He sends Ajax away and keeps the medallion for himself. Ryder watches this all from atop the wall surrounding The Pits while M.K. finds an ally in Bale who warns him about Ajax’s violent ambitions.

Quinn returns to the poppy plantation to be chided by his wife Lydia. Multiple barons have declined the invitation to his eight wedding. He dismisses her concerns as jealousy but she assures him he can have as many wives as he sees fits. Quinn is racked by a headache so severe it has accompanying music and Lydia urges him to hand off some of his responsibilities to Ryder. Quinn scoffs at the notion that Ryder is up to the task and Lydia reminds him of “everything that boy sacrificed for you”.

Sunny goes back to his bunk and takes out a compass that has similar markings to the medallion he took from M.K. He flashes back to a memory of him as a small child taking the compass from the hand of a man whose throat had been slit — in a similar fashion to the prisoners from the beginning of the episode — but his reverie is interrupted by Ryder. He demands to know what Sunny took from the boy. Sunny slips the compass into his pocket and flips the medallion to Ryder, who wants to know if Sunny has ever seen anything like this before. “No,” lies Sunny.

Sunny travels into the Badlands where his visits Veil, his lover who has taught him how to read. She reveals that she is pregnant and Sunny tells her she cannot keep it. He makes it clear that to keep the baby would carry punishment by death (although it is not clear for whom). She tells him she has heard stories of lands that exist beyond the Badlands that they could run to. “I know buried under all this ink there is a good man,” she implores.

“You’re wrong,” he assures her.

Ajax jumps M.K again, this time in the catacombs where they bunk, and draws blood when he knocks him to the ground. Upon seeing the blood M.K.’s eyes go black and he kicks Ajax into a mirror which sends shards of glass shrapnel into the air. M.K. seamlessly snatches one of the shards and flings it into Ajax’s eye before collapsing in front of a stunned Sunny. When he regains consciousness in Sunny’s quarters M.K. explains that something takes control of him when he bleeds. He and his mother left their home when he was little to find a healer who could cure him. They were beset by nomads and separated. He has been searching for her ever since. Sunny shows him the compass and M.K. explains to Sunny that he found something that depicts his home of Azra, which lies beyond the Badlands.

Sunny goes back to see Veil, perhaps with some hope of starting a family in Azra, but cannot bring himself to go through the door to her shop. He is confronted by sword wielding — and bowler-wearing — assailants in a stunning battle in the pouring rain that looked like it could have been cut straight of out of Tsai Hark movie. While the fight someone watches on from a car. As Sunny slices the last assailants throat The Widow emerges from the car and flaunts that Sunny cannot harm him. She demands that Sunny bring her the boy from The Fort and shows him a piece of paper with the same symbol of Azra.

Meanwhile, M.K. — despite Sunny’s warnings — attempts to retrieve his medallion from Ryder’s room but is captured. Lydia hears the commotion and comes in and is obviously startled by the sight of the medallion. Ryder declares that M.K. will be killed at dawn as an example to the other Colts. While awaiting execution M.K. is visited by Sunny and the boy tries to make him promise to find his mother. Sunny frees the boy and tells him to find her himself. He brings him to a tunnel that will take him out of the fort and warns him that if he is caught he will be killed. He is giving M.K. the choice he never had. Lydia observes them as Sunny facilitates the escape.

stag night

Sunny is summoned to Quinn’s mancave which seems like it was furnished during a raid on a Hammacher Schlemmer ̶w̶̶̶h̶̶̶o̶̶̶r̶̶̶e̶̶̶h̶̶̶o̶̶̶u̶̶̶s̶̶̶e̶̶̶ warehouse. Actually everything about the Baron and The Fort is intensely male. He has George Bellows’ painting Stag Night at Starkey’s hanging over his mantle, he is about to take his eighth wife, and all of his servants, Colts, and Clippers are all male. He clearly has a paternal regard for Sunny and wants him to be closer to the main house even though it will upset Ryder (who unbeknownst to Quinn is sleeping with the woman who is about to be the eighth person he calls Mommy).

All in all it was, as I expected, gorgeous, action-packed, and more than a little trope-laden on story. I am definitely going to keep watching for the action scenes alone, if nothing else. It is safe to say it is the most successful Western implementation of martial arts fight choreography that I can recall in a Western film, much less on a television show. Also Stephen Lang joins the cast for four of the six episodes and I would watch a show with far worse fight choreography to see him in anything.


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