Directed by: Wu Jing || Produced by: Wu Jing, Jiang Ping, Zhao Haicheng, Li Yang, Zhao Jianjun, Xu Zhiyong, Jing Defu, Liu Kailuo, Deng Hao, Wu Yan
Screenplay by: Wu Jing, Dong Qun, Liu Yi || Starring: Wu Jing, Celina Jade, Frank Grillo, Hans Zhang, Wu Gang, Yu Nan
Music by: Joseph Trapanese || Cinematography: Peter Ngor || Edited by: Ka-Fai Cheung || Country: China || Language: Mandarin, English
Running Time: 121 minutes
The story of Wolf Warrior 2, action star-filmmaker Wu Jing’s surprise box office smash and the highest grossing mainland Chinese film of all time, is an interplay between three elements: (1) Auteur theory, (2) Hollywood and Chinese studio ambitions, and (3) the use of action filmmaking as a propaganda tool. Wolf Warrior 2 (henceforth, WW2, not to be confused with World War II, circa 1939-1945) is no groundbreaking action film in terms of cinematography or screenwriting, nor is it the most expensive Chinese or East Asian blockbuster by a wide margin; yet, its sheer box office success from a single market ($874 million in China alone) as a function of its co-writer, co-producer, director, and star’s political flamboyance is notable. Wu Jing’s box office smash hints at both his rising auteur star and a possible change in US-Chinese box office strategy.
Wu has been active in East Asian film industries since the mid-1990s as a martial arts showman and action star, and has been directing action movies for over a decade. WW2, his third picture following the moderate success of 2015’s original Wolf Warrior, will likely define the remainder of his career if ripple effects of WW2‘s overwhelming domestic success are harbingers of what’s to come for the international film industry.
Putting aside the film’s immediate political or financial implications, both WW2 and its predecessor are unabashed vanity projects by their star-director. The modern consensus on who is most responsible for a given film’s artistic execution is its director by default, more so than its screenwriter or producer. In the case of directors who lead the casts of their films, this mainstream acceptance of auteur theory is given a further dimension. Filmmakers who command their movies from both behind and in front of the camera are prone to vanity projects, some of which are now considered legendary (e.g. numerous works by Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Dennis Hopper, Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson), and others, not so legendary (e.g. see the works of Tyler Perry, Seth MacFarlane, Ben Stiller, and also Stallone).
WW2 is a vanity project, or rather the second installment in a vanity franchise (see Stallone’s Rocky series [1976-2018]) for star-writer-producer-director Wu. Aside from pushing his unapologetic nationalist sentiment — more on that in a moment — WW2 is a vehicle for Wu’s action star prowess above all else. His character, like most of his supporting cast, is one-dimensional to the point of cartoonishness; his character, Leng Feng, a discharged Chinese special forces operative working for hire at the start of WW2, is portrayed as selfless, flawless, righteous, and capable of dispatching dozens of enemy combatants in minutes. He’s also super-handsome, as evidenced by his ability to avoid grit, grime, and notable blood squibs despite numerous over-the-top, practical-FX based action sequences.
The box office take of WW2 compared to its modest (in absolute terms) budget of $30.1 million has prompted Hollywood and Chinese studios to reevaluate their cross-pollination strategies of making international Eastern/Western hybrid blockbusters with the explicit intent of appealing to both Chinese and North American audiences. Examples of these hybridized American–Chinese co–productions include Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), The Great Wall (2016), and Skull Island (2017), which have achieved varying levels of success. The suggestions of WW2‘s domestic box office dominance, produced for a fraction of the price of those aforementioned crossbred films and designed solely for the appreciation of Chinese audiences, are that Eastern and Western studios are best left to tend to their respective audiences.
Last but not least, let us discuss the degrees to which Wu successfully engineers action filmmaking tropes, FX, and cinematography to sell his film’s political message. That WW2 portrays the People’s Republic of China in heroic, flattering light is unsurprising, and as an American, I would never fault a filmmaker for producing an over-the-top, “ra-ra” militaristic action movie… so long as the movie’s good. Is it? Well, I’d argue Wu’s latest vanity project is something of a mixed bag. Most of his action-direction is terrific, utilizing extensive practical FX, hardcore violence with gore and blood-squibs aplenty, memorable yet grounded choreography, effective handheld camerawork, and diverse action sequences. That being said, most of those blood squibs are digital, and, unlike the low-lit or nighttime cinematography of, say, John Wick (2014, 2017), are distracting in WW2‘s high-key, well lit outdoor sequences. The movie’s few digital FX in general are quite bad, though unlike Baahubali (2015, 2017), they do not form the basis of WW2‘s violent aesthetic. A green/blue-screen mess this film is not.
No, all of WW2‘s biggest problems are with its characters, dialogue, and story, i.e. its screenplay, or Wu’s translation of such to screen. As mentioned earlier, though Wu is charismatic and looks the part as the film’s lead, his character is a flat-line and sports little to no arc. The same can be said for WW2‘s supporting cast, including female lead Celina Jade, antagonist Frank Grillo, and action co-stars Hans Zhang and Wu Gang. Everybody acts their part well enough, but in terms of characterizations, the principle cast are cardboard cutouts. The minor characters, all of black or African ancestry, as well as the sub-Saharan African backdrop in general, fare the worst in terms of cringe-worthy social commentary, condescending African stereotypes (see Maryan ), laughable dialogue, and poor attempts at comedy. Wu’s dated representation of “the Dark Continent” has been the subject of much debate, and makes Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) feel progressive; it’s comparable to Rambo II’s (1985) portrayal of the Vietnam War or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’s (1984) portrayal of colonial India. You think Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is “slum-porn?”
Altogether, Wolf Warrior 2 is enjoyable for its action sequences and star-director Wu Jing’s charismatic performance, but little else. Its unabashed Chinese nationalism is par for the course for this type of military action filmmaking, and is more interesting with regards to its future implications for international box office dynamics than it is for sociopolitical analysis. This is in contrast to the movie’s take on its sub-Saharan African setting, which is so clumsy and simplistic as to distract from its fun set-pieces, while its major characters remain little more than one-note placeholders for audience sympathy. Production value-wise, this sequel is impressive, while its implications for Hollywood-Chinese filmmaking relations are fascinating, so a tentative recommendation for this feature is best paired with light background research and lowered expectations with regards to cultural understanding. It’s a mixed bag, overall, but a memorable one at that.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Wu Jing shows proficiency in action filmmaking fundamentals from choreography to camerawork to a dependence on practical FX. However, his screenwriting ability is lackluster outside of action scene pacing, while his complete lack of cultural self-awareness merges with his on-the-nose political commentary to create unintentional comedy. Wolf Warrior 2 is dated, or “old-school,” in both good ways and bad.
—> ON THE FENCE*: This is a highly entertaining, though often obtuse action feature. Your mileage with The Wolf may vary according to your affection for Rambo-style shoot-em-up flicks and tolerance for heavy-handed nationalist preaching.