After achieving success with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead, AMC hopes to continue its winning streak with its latest offering, Into the Badlands, which premieres this Sunday, Nov. 15 at 10/9c. Very loosely based on the classic 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, this action-adventure series is a genre mashup set in a post-apocalyptic American frontier ruled by feudal “Barons” who live on plantations and employ legions of martial artists to do their bidding. While the jury’s still out on its storytelling, one thing is for certain: Badlands wears its martial arts influences on its bloody, tattered sleeve. With that in mind, we decided to offer a handful of feature recommendations that share thematic territory with the show. Martial arts cinema is a rich, surprisingly layered genre, so this isn’t intended to serve as a definitive compilation of the best it has to offer, but as a complementary guide to help pinpoint where Into the Badlands may have gleaned some of its inspiration.
The primary hero of Into the Badlands is Sunny (played by Daniel Wu), a lethal enforcer for a cruel Baron (Martin Csokas) whose allegiance is tested when he’s approached by a rival Baron hoping to solicit his services. Brutally effective with a pair of katanas, Sunny feels like a kindred spirit to Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro, a wandering rōnin who plays two opposing small-town gangs against each other in Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo. Strictly speaking, Yojimbo isn’t so much a typical martial arts film as it is a period crime drama with some swordplay, but its timeless themes have echoed through decades of pop culture, most famously in Sergio Leone’s western remake A Fistful of Dollars. In keeping with modern trends, Sunny’s battles are far bloodier than Sanjuro’s, but if you switched up just a few of the details, Yojimbo’s plot would feel right at home in the world of Into the Badlands, even if it were adapted wholesale.
The aforementioned rival Baron who attempts to woo Sunny to her cause is The Widow (Emily Beecham), who wields daggers with deadly precision and commands an army of female assassins known as the Butterflies. Chinese cinema has featured women warriors like The Widow since the silent era, so it’s not tough to see where Into the Badlands got its inspiration, but this Shaw Brothers production feels particularly relevant. Based on the well-known folkloric tales of the legendary Yang family, The 14 Amazons centers on matriarch Mu Kuei-ying (Ivy Ling Po), who leads the women generals of the Yang clan on a revenge spree when she herself is widowed by a corrupt warlord. Amazons features a lot of the trademark flourishes that are emblematic of 1970s kung fu cinema – fingerpaint blood, quick zooms, frenetic editing – but it boasts a handful of unforgettable scenes (human bridge, anyone?), and it’s fairly unique in its presentation of a female-centric army leading the charge in a righteous war.
The action set pieces in Into the Badlands are impressively choreographed exercises in mayhem, and they often conclude with a shot of Sunny standing amidst a pile of severed limbs and skewered foes. The violence on display is graphic and visceral, and it likely owes a debt to this bloody curio from 1980. Originally released as the first two films in a Japanese franchise adapted from the popular manga series Lone Wolf and Cub, Shogun Assassin was recut to combine both movies into one, dubbed in English, then unleashed upon unsuspecting international grindhouse audiences by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. The result — a somewhat muddled tale about a disgraced executioner who embarks on a mission of vengeance with his young son when a powerful Shogun murders his wife — became a sensation with genre enthusiasts who reveled in its unrelentingly bloody swordfights, which were so gruesome that the film was nearly banned in the UK. If Badlands drew any inspiration from Shogun Assassin, it wouldn’t be the first to do so; Quentin Tarantino and the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA are among those who have famously helped perpetuate its cult status over the years.
The advent of the Shaw Brothers studio in the 1970s brought with it a significant boom in kung fu cinema, specifically the types of movies that favored grounded hand-to-hand combat over the more supernatural elements of traditional wuxia films. One of the giants of the era was director Lau Kar-leung, who helmed such classics as 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Dirty Ho (not what it sounds like), My Young Auntie, and later, the Jackie Chan masterpiece Drunken Master II. In 1982, Lau broke with his typical kung fu sensibilities and delivered a slightly fantastical tale in Legendary Weapons of China, in which a promising pupil during the Boxer Rebellion is tasked with recruiting warriors who can withstand bullets. While there is a bit of magical voodoo peppered throughout the story, the film’s centerpiece is its climactic duel, a dynamic eight-minute battle that showcases 18 different weapon styles skillfully wielded by Lau himself and his opponent. If the axes, spears, and swords clashing in Into the Badlands make your heart go pitter-patter, wait until you get a load of Legendary Weapons of China.
The Baron who commands Sunny in Into the Badlands is also father to an impetuous son named Ryder (Oliver Stark), who is visibly perturbed by his father’s affection for Sunny. This rivalry between brothers (full-blooded or adoptive) is certainly not an uncommon narrative theme, and one of the most entertaining versions of the story in wuxia comes in the form of Tai-Chi Master (aka Twin Dragons). Directed by celebrated industry veteran Yuen Woo-ping, Tai-Chi Master stars Jet Li and Chin Siu-ho as a pair of brothers who part ways when one of them chooses to enlist in the evil local governor’s army while the other leads a rebellion. Betrayed by his own brother, the rebel (Li) effectively loses his mind, and it’s only through the power of Tai-Chi that he is able to come to his senses and bring his brother to justice. The film utilizes wire work sparingly but effectively, and the choreography on display is breathtaking, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Yuen Woo-ping; he gave us Iron Monkey and the original Drunken Master, and his hands are all over the Matrix trilogy, the Kill Bill films, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, among countless others.
With better filmmaking techniques and technology at their disposal, modern fight directors have become increasingly precise and creative in the ways they are able to portray the infliction of martial justice upon the wicked. For example, the opening scenes of Into the Badlands‘ premiere episode include a kinetic action sequence in which Sunny dispatches a gang of bandits with a series of bone-crunching maneuvers, and it looks excruciatingly painful. It’s reminiscent of a scene from this film from Thailand, in which Tony Jaa stars as a martial arts master named Kham who’s out for revenge (natch) when his sacred family elephants are stolen. Okay, so the plot’s as thin as rice paper, but the film is notable both for Jaa’s electric athleticism and a brilliant unbroken tracking shot that follows Kham up a circular hotel walkway as he battles his way through a horde of opponents. Most relevant to Into the Badlands, however, is what happens when Kham reaches the top floor: traumatized by the sight of his elephant’s skeleton (don’t snicker) and assaulted by an endless swarm of baddies, Kham expertly and furiously dislocates every joint in sight. Necks are twisted, elbows are bent the wrong way, knees are hyperextended, ankles are rolled like so much sourdough. If Sunny’s chiropractic exploits on Badlands made you cringe, be prepared to gag when you see what Tony Jaa can do.
If Donnie Yen has yet to achieve the breakout stardom of Jackie Chan or Jet Li in the Western world, he at least has benefited from some stellar collaborations with director Wilson Yip. The baton vs. knife fight in Kill Zone crackles with energy, and the knock-down, drag-out brawl between Yen and Collin Chou in Flash Point is absolutely brutal. But their most famous work together is 2008’s Ip Man, which retells the story of the famed turn-of-the-century master who fought to keep Chinese martial arts alive during the Sino-Japanese War and later went on to teach Bruce Lee. Thanks to the efforts of Sammo Hung (who starred alongside Yen in Kill Zone and served as choreographer here), the film excels at portraying Ip’s almost effortless Wing Chun technique, particularly in a scene when Ip fends off 10 Japanese fighters during a demonstration. Remember the bone-cracking from The Protector? There’s a bit of that here, too, but it’s mixed with a flurry of lightning-fast punches and strategic takedowns. The sight of a single man facing a circle of opponents is another familiar theme repeated both here and frequently in Into the Badlands, and for good reason: it allows for fluid, sweeping camera movement and perspective shots that milk the tension. Lots of films, however, have little else to offer outside of a few well-shot fights, and thankfully, Ip Man isn’t one of them.
Speaking of Ip Man and well-shot fights, it should be noted that several movies have been made about Ip, especially in recent years. What happens, though, when one of those movies is helmed by an auteur known for dramatic long takes and moody romance? The result is The Grandmaster, a lushly photographed 2013 film by acclaimed director Wong Kar-wai (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love), which stars Wong regular Tony Leung as Ip Man and centers on his life after the fall of the last dynasty. Wong’s trademark sensibilities are all present, but the reason it appears on this list is its opening sequence, which finds Ip squaring off against multiple opponents on a city street at night during a downpour — something Into the Badlands very closely mimics in Sunny’s first encounter with The Widow. Fights in the rain possess a rather poetic, otherworldly quality that makes them beautiful to behold, so they are, again, not entirely uncommon — 1991’s Once Upon A Time in China and 2002’s Hero both feature memorable battles like this, for example — but the resemblance between The Grandmaster‘s opening and the scene in Badlands look eerily similar, right down to a handful of choice camera angles, that it’s hard not to assume the latter took some inspiration from the former. And if you’re taking cues from Wong Kar-wai’s eye for sumptuous cinematography, you’re doing something right.