AMC introduced a little show called The Walking Dead, a bleak comic book adaptation from a genre that had never fared well on TV, has the network taken such a high-profile—and exciting—risk as it will Sunday night with the premiere of Into the Badlands.
The Daniel Wu-fronted martial arts drama, created by Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, brings to life a visually lush, steampunk-infused world in which seven feudal Barons rule what’s left of society after nuclear war devastates the Earth’s population. In the fledgling civilization that emerges, guns are outlawed—making the kung fu and weapon prowess of ruthless assassins called “Clippers” the deciding factor in clashes between power-hungry Barons.
AMC ordered Badlands, which is loosely based on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, straight to series before ever seeing the pilot—a testament of faith in the experienced martial artists who make the show. Martial arts coordinator Huan-Chiu Ku, a.k.a. Master DeeDee, served up stunts for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Romeo Must Die, and both Kill Bill movies, among others. And Wu, a California native who stars in and executive produces the series, rose to stardom in Hong Kong and China as a protégé of Jackie Chan who transitioned fluidly from kung fu-heavy films to dramas, action-thrillers, and indies over the course of his sixty-plus film career.
For Wu, 41, Badlands marks an unexpected return to onscreen martial arts after a number of injuries gave him second thoughts about the genre. “I worked with Jackie Chan for a long time and seeing how much pain he’s in, I realized that that might not be a sustainable career for me,” Wu says.
Despite Wu’s insistence on finding a younger Asian American actor to take on the character of Sunny, a bad-guy-turned-good Clipper, months of searching never unearthed the right actor. The role required a martial arts master with the dramatic chops to carry the show’s romance and intrigue storylines—but unfortunately, Wu says, few of the actors he met had had enough onscreen experience to develop into leading men.
“Asian Americans haven’t had as many opportunities as other people to build their careers in Hollywood, just because there hasn’t been that much of an interest, especially in Asian American males,” Wu says. “It’s not that there aren’t any out there, it’s just that there’s not a lot with a lot of experience because they haven’t been given the opportunity.”
Judging from the first two episodes’ worth of fight scenes, it’s not hard to see why Wu was apprehensive. Each exquisitely choreographed sequence is shot Hong Kong-style in handheld close-ups and luxurious long takes that leave actors uninterrupted for 20 to 30 fight moves at a time. Throw in weapons, wire stunts, and elaborate costumes, and a commitment to pulling off eleven such fight scenes in just four months would be daunting for any actor, let alone a kung fu veteran.