Watch out, TV viewers. The small screen is filling up with martial-arts masters.
Sunny (Daniel Wu), a lethal enforcer in the future, feudal society of AMC’s Into the Badlands, is the latest to join a field that includes The Walking Dead’s Morgan, Sense8’s Sun Bak, Arrow and several characters in Netflix’s Marco Polo. CBS also has Rush Hour, an adaptation of legend Jackie Chan’s film franchise, on the way.
“With the popularity of UFC and how martial arts (have) become mainstream, I think people are more receptive and want to see more of it,” Wu says. “We saw Kung Fu 40 years ago and shows like Martial Law and Walker, Texas Ranger that showcased (martial arts), but we’re hitting the point where it’s … not a niche genre anymore.”
Here’s a rundown of contemporary warriors who wield hands, sticks and swords to attack and defend, along with a legend who kick-started the genre on TV nearly 50 years ago.
Sunny (Wu) of AMC’s Into the Badlands (premieres Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT)
Motorcycle-riding Sunny is a Clipper, an elite fighter who works for one of the seven barons who control a post-apocalyptic Midwest now known as the Badlands.
“We’re in a world where guns don’t exist and people have to survive on their warrior skills,” Wu says. “Even though we’re in a dystopian future where society has reset itself and there’s a certain amount of order, it’s still about power. And the way they solve problems is through violence.”
Wu, who was born in northern California and moved to Hong Kong as an adult, has enjoyed success in Chinese-language films, with Chan as a mentor. The actor’s martial-arts experience is put to good use in Badlands: He does almost all of his own stunt work.
“For Sunny, we wanted to not be stuck in one style. We wanted to be dynamic. If it’s 300 years in the future, there may not be one type of fighting style,” says Wu.
Morgan Jones (Lennie James) of AMC’s The Walking Dead (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET/PT)
The mysterious Morgan picked up martial-arts skills, including the ability to swing a mean Bo staff, and a philosophy during Aikido training with Eastman (John Carroll Lynch), turning him from killer to peacemaker.
“It is the way of the peaceful warrior,” says James. “The stick is a deadly weapon wielded in a certain way, but it is not necessarily a weapon that is designed to kill. Morgan’s thing is to protect himself but not necessarily by killing somebody else.”
Sparing lives, as Morgan has done with the dangerous Wolves, may have consequences in the Alexandria community, James says. “What may well have been a good decision for him when he was alone may not be a good decision for the rest of the (survivors’) group and other Alexandrians.”
The Arrow/Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) in CW’s Arrow (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET/PT)
A bow and a quiver of arrows are hardly the only tools Star City’s hero has in his fight against evil. His fighting skills, many learned during his years on a remote island, include Eskrima, Muay Thai, Wing Chun, Jiu Jitsu and boxing.
Arrow’s skill set has global roots, fight/stunt coordinator James Banford says. “The countries of origin for Oliver’s training ranges from China to Japan, Philippines, Russia, Thailand.”
Sun Bak (Doona Bae) of Netflix’s Sense8 (renewed for Season 2)
Sun Bak is one of eight characters from around the world who find themselves mentally connected after experiencing a violent vision. They must figure out what happened, and why, as they evade an organization trying to capture them.
Bae began her martial arts training in Korea with Doo-Hung Jung, who designed Sun’s Hapkido variation, which includes a range of attack and defense styles.
Marco Polo cast (Netflix, Season 2 on its way)
Martial arts are a group endeavor in the story of explorer Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) in 13th-century China. Jia Sidao (Chin Han) practices Mantis-style Kung Fu; blind monk Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) displays a compilation of styles that series creator John Fusco calls Golden Lotus; and Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng) shows her skill with Tai Chi as well as the sword.
Kato (Bruce Lee) in ABC’s The Green Hornet (1967-68)
The Green Hornet only lasted one season, but it helped launch the entertainment career of martial arts legend Lee, who played valet and crime-fighting partner, Kato.
Lee, who studied Wing Chun and developed a personal martial-arts philosophy, Jeet Kune Do, went on to a feature-film career that included Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon before he died at 32 in 1973.
Wu lists Lee as one of his idols. “He was amazing. He was able to incorporate his philosophies about life into his martial arts, into his acting. He had this tremendous charisma.”