Wu Jing’s record-breaking Chinese-produced action-adventure gives audiences plenty of bang for their bucks.
Earlier this week, “Wolf Warrior II” made the leap from smash hit to bona fide phenomenon, becoming the top grossing film released in its native China (more than $500 million in 12 days, and still counting). Like Sylvester Stallone before him, and John Wayne before Stallone, star Wu Jing(who also directs) has successfully exploited the crowd-pleasing potential of enhancing militaristic action-adventure heroics with a heavy dose of flag-waving patriotism. The big difference here, of course, is that the flag waved by Wu and others in this shoot-’em-up extravaganza is that of the People’s Republic of China, and Wu’s heroic Leng Feng is not a Green Beret, but rather a once and future member of his country’s elite Wolf Warriors special ops unit.
Depending on their own political leanings, some Westerners will be either amused or incensed by the full-throated nationalism that pervades “Wolf Warrior II,” and by the film’s sporadic insistence that Chinese military forces are more resilient and reliable than those of any other country (like, say, U.S. Marines) when it comes to extracting its citizens from international hot spots. On the other hand, more apolitical moviegoers are likely to simply enjoy the runaway train of action set pieces that Wu propels with his flimsy but serviceable plot, and dismiss all the jingoist chest-thumping as roughly akin to John Rambo’s stated desire to refight the Vietnam War — and, dammit, win this time! — in “Rambo: First Blood Part II.”
At the start of “Wolf Warrior II,” which Wu co-wrote with Dong Qun and Liu Yi, Feng takes care of business as a lone wolf, single-handedly dispatching a group of pirates intent attacking a freighter in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar. Flashbacks helpfully explain that he’s working at a freelance security gig after being booted from his special ops unit (and serving three years in prison) for roughing up a loutish land developer who threatened the loved ones of a comrade who perished during the 2015 “Wolf Warrior” (also directed by and starring Wu).
Even so, as Feng himself says, “Once a Wolf Warrior, always a Wolf Warrior!” Initially, he appears content to spend his time between jobs drinking and chilling in the port city of an unnamed African nation, with only occasional thoughts about Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan), his missing and presumed-dead former lover, ever darkening his mood. But he just can’t help being the right man in the wrong place at the right time.
When revolutionaries cut a bloody swath through the city, during a thrillingly chaotic sequence that comes across as equal parts Paul Greengrass and Jackie Chan, Feng relies on his expertise with martial arts and automatic weapons to shepherd innocent bystanders through the fray and to the safety of the Chinese embassy. And when the commander of a Chinese battleship says he and his men are bound by international law not to do anything more than transport Chinese nationals (and a few locals) out of harm’s way, Feng volunteers to become a one-man army for a rescue mission that takes him to a “Chinese-invested” hospital and a Chinese-financed factory complex that have been targeted by vicious mercenaries.
“Wolf Warrior II” allows Wu the opportunity to evince greater charismatic wattage as an action-movie star than he did in the first “Wolf Warrior.” (One could argue that he was far more sympathetic in Soi Cheang’s 2015 “SPL 2: A Time for Consequences” — aka “Kill Zone 2” — but, to be fair, that movie cast him as a bone-marrow donor to a leukemia-stricken little girl.) Better still, he develops three nicely differentiated styles of give-and-take with co-stars playing Wu’s major allies: Celina Jade as a doctor seeking a cure for an infectious disease ravaging the African nation; Wu Gang as a seasoned Chinese army vet now in charge of security at the factory; and Hans Zhang as a second-generation army officer determined to prove his mettle under fire.
But the performances ultimately serve as so much window dressing during the virtually nonstop cavalcade of rough stuff, ranging from hand-to-hand combat to an assault by armed drones to cleverly choreographed tank battles, that Wu Jing has conceived in concert with action directors Wai Leung Wong (“Operation Mekong”) and Sam Hargrave (“Atomic Blonde”). It would appear Wu heeded the comments of disappointed fans (and movie critics) who complained that Feng’s climatic grudgep-match with the chief villain (Scott Adkins) in the first “Wolf Warrior” was disappointingly brief. Here, he gives us a satisfyingly extended one-on-one battle between Feng and Big Daddy (snarling and scenery-chewing Frank Grillo), the sadistic leader of the mercenary band.
Wu skillfully amps the suspense during the final confrontation by effectively underscoring it with, of all things, a supporting character’s impassioned rendition of “Amazing Grace.” It’s probably wise not to read any religious subtext into the director’s choice of the hymn — in this context, it’s used pretty much the same way Ennio Morricone’s nondenominational score was employed in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns.
The epilogue of “Wolf Warrior II” promises a forthcoming “Wolf Warrior III.” Judging from the box office returns for this chapter in what promises to be an ongoing franchise, let’s just say Wu and his producers were not merely confident — they were downright prescient.