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First Look: AMC's 'Into the Badlands' brings martial arts back to TV

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James Dimmock/AMC

For AMC’s post-Breaking Bad and Mad Men slate, the network’s tapping into a genre that’s been absent from the small screen for decades: martial arts. Into the Badlands, which the network ordered straight-to-series in 2014, will try to help the genre make a primetime comeback when it premieres in late 2015.

The drama stars Hong Kong import Daniel Wu as Sunny, a warrior who travels across dangerous lands controlled by feudal barons in order to find enlightenment. If that sounds like a tall tale, it is—the series is loosely based on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, which follows, in short, a monkey who travels in search of enlightenment and encounters a series of gods and other supernatural beings along the way.

There won’t be monkeys in Into the Badlands, but showrunner Al Gough tells EW the show will focus on making the on-screen martial arts as authentic as possible. Gough, who co-created Into the Badlands with Miles Millar (the two previously helmed Smallville and made films like Shanghai Noon), talked to EW about why it’s time for martial arts to appear on TV again. Plus, here’s EW’s exclusive first look at Wu in full costume: 

James Dimmock/AMC

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you want to do a martial arts show now?

AL GOUGH: Miles and I had been kicking around the idea of doing a martial arts show on television for awhile. Miles and I have done, on the movies side, two movies with Jackie Chan and two movies with Jet Li, and so we felt this was something on television that wasn’t really beng explored. We wanted to pivot and do something new.

Why use Journey to the West? That’s a huge work to base anything on, even loosely.

Yeah, it was interesting. We thought further aspects of that story could be used as a template for the show. I think we owe as much to Hong Kong and Asian cinema, as well as Japanese samurai movies and things like Shogun Assassin and Lone Wolf and Cub. So there’s aspects of all of that. Our inspiration became a mashup of all these things we liked.

In other words, it’s not just based on Journey to the West. When I read the premise of the show, I wondered if you were going to cast a monkey or something.

No, no. [Laughs] I think really what our show is about is it’s a journey of enlightenment for Sunny, the lead character. That’s the whole arc. It’s his spiritual quest for enlightenment—and that’s what we took from it. We took the essence of that. The show is distilled from a lot of other influences that we’ve all loved.

What can a martial arts drama on television bring that’s different from other action-heavy series, like superhero shows?

What we really wanted to do was authentic martial arts. A lot of shows tend to do a version of authentic martial arts, and they execute it very well—but in Hong Kong, you see the people, you see the martial artists doing the moves. It’s like watching a dance. So what we have here is a full-time martial arts fight unit that Stephen Fung [an EP and Hong Kong actor] is directing. And that’s something that was very important to us, to get the right people to do it and that it’s authentic. I think when people see these fights, they haven’t seen them on television before. They’re not 35- or 40-second fights. They’re three-minute fights, and I gotta tell you, three minutes is a long time to do a martial arts fight.

Daniel Wu isn’t a household name stateside, but he is in China. How did he get involved?

Daniel was an executive producer on the show from the start, along with Stephen Fung, but Daniel auditioned for the role. He said, “I want to know I can get the role legitimately.” And I think he’s a fantastic actor who American audiences haven’t seen. He’s from San Francisco, moved to China, was discovered by Jackie Chan, and became a big star over there, but he hasn’t been exposed here. He’s a wu shu master, which is a form of martial arts, so his stunt work is amazing. And to be able to take somebody who’s a movie star in a foreign country and get him for American television, it’s just very exciting.

With all of these unfamiliar parts—a foreign actor, a genre that hasn’t been on TV for a long while—what do you consider the biggest challenges to doing this show? Do you think audiences will bite?

I think it has the challenges of any new show, but I think we have this wonderful tradition to pull from, an amazing cast led by Daniel, and it’s an original creation and we hope people embrace it. It’s fresh territory, there’s a huge fan base for martial arts films, it’s just an amazing part of cinema. It’s an open field, which is both incredibly exciting and king of daunting, but that’s how it should be.

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