Wolf Warrior II
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D, 123 mins.
Director: Wu Jing 吴京.
Wu Jing’s third outing as director-star is a terrific slice of pulpy Asian action cinema, set in East Africa.
A country on the east coast of Africa, the present day. Leng Feng (Wu Jing) is an ex-member of the Wolf Warriors, the PLA Special Forces’ elite unit, who is now living in Africa and working as a freelance security advisor. In the Indian Ocean, near Madagascar, he singlehandedly defeats some African pirates attacking the container vessel Baimeiyu. (Three years earlier, while delivering the ashes of a comrade to his home town, he had killed a gangster who was demolishing the family’s home. As a result he was stripped of his military rank by his superior [Shi Zhaoqi] and jailed. While he was in prison, his fiancee, Wolf Warriors commander Long Xiaoyun [Yu Nan], was killed on a mission just before they were to marry. At the scene a strangely engraved bullet was found, said to be from Africa; when he was released, Leng Feng vowed to scour the continent to find its owner.) The country is in a state of emergency, due to an outbreak of the incurable virus Lamanla and a civil war against the Red Scarf rebel army. When Red Scarf forces enter the capital, Leng Feng is caught up in the street fighting. He leads a small group – his African godson Tundu (Nwachukwu Kennedy Chukwuebuka), a Chinese supermarket owner (Yu Qian) and some Africans – to safety in the Chinese Embassy’s compound. Meanwhile, some PLA Navy ships arrive to evacuate Chinese citizens. About to leave, Leng Feng is told by the supermarket owner that the bullet he’s looking for is used by the Red Scarf rebels, who have hired top mercenaries from Europe; Leng Feng also hears that a valued Chinese doctor, Chen (Guo Qiucheng), is stuck 55 kilomentres behind enemy lines at the Saint Francis China-Hospital, and that 47 Chinese workers – including Tundu’s mother, Nessa (Ann James) – are trapped at a factory owned by Zhuo’s Hanbond Group. He leaves the ship and volunteers for a solo mission to rescue everyone. At the hospital, Chen is killed during the rescue mission but entrusts his African daughter, Pasha (Diana Sylla), to Leng Feng’s safe keeping. Leng Feng escapes with Chen’s doctor colleague Rachel Smith (Lu Jingshan), a half-Chinese US citizen whose doctor father, Huang Lingxian, had devoted his life to working in Africa. Abandoned by the US embassy, she stays with Leng Feng and Pasha as he drives on to rescue the workers at Handbond’s factory. The naval commander gives him 18 hours before the fleet leaves. Leng Feng finds the factory guarded by a PLA veteran, He Jianguo (Wu Gang), and the owner’s cocky son, Zhuo Yifan (Zhang Han). The Red Scarf’s mercenaries, led by Big Daddy (Frank Grillo), an American, are not far behind.
The film career of Wu Jing 吴京, 43, finally comes of age in his third directing-starring stint, Wolf Warrior II 战狼II, in which the Beijing-born martial artist takes on nasty western mercenaries in a fictional East African country plagued with civil war and a virus outbreak. A terrific slice of Asian action cinema, with an anything-goes, B-movie energy inside an A-movie shell, the unashamed flag-waver has already sailed past the previous film’s not inconsiderable take of RMB545 million to become the Mainland’s biggest-grossing film ever, so far hawling in over RMB4.5 billion is less than three weeks. Wu is still not convincing star material but this time packages himself in a way that plays to his strengths as part of an ensemble. It will be interesting to see whether Wolf Warrior III (promised at the end) will stick to the series’ lean, pulpy roots or turn fat and flabby on the wave of success.
Significantly released during the PLA’s 90th anniversary celebrations, WWII is, like its predecessor, avowedly nationalistic – though no worse, and arguably more justified, than the ra-ra action fodder that Hollywood has been exporting for over 70 years. But where Wolf Warrior 战狼 (2015) was a locally-set, anti-drug smuggling picture, with a message for “those who challenge China’s borders”, WWII goes international, pointedly set in Africa (where China has a major investment profile, as well as a new military base in Djibouti, its first outside Asia) and with an explicit message that Mainland citizens (unlike some other countries’) will never be left stranded wherever they are in the world. In other words, China is a caring, global player.
The script – again co-written with Wu by military novelist Dong Qun 董群 and by Liu Yi 刘毅, a TV drama writer with occasional film credits (Far from Home 我的美丽乡愁, 2002) – is full of declarations about China-Africa friendship and how China (unlike unnamed western countries) is a partner with, not an exploiter of, the continent. Our Hero gets out of several tight spots simply by declaring his nationality and/or showing the flag. So far, so on message. The film’s success, however, is in turning this into genuinely exhilarating cinema. As Our Hero races to rescue some evacuees before the PLA Navy sails in 18 hours’ time, the drama is kept at fever-pitch by two devices: (a) when it seems that things can’t get any worse for the good guys, they do, and (b) when it seems that Our Hero can’t vault any more obstacles, he does. The latter includes catching an incurable virus; the former includes meeting an entire army just when everyone is almost safe, the solution to which spawns the film’s most uplifting moment, corny as it is.
Like the script and dialogue, Wu’s direction is tight and no-nonsense, with superb action editing by Hong Kong’s experienced Zhang Jiahui 张嘉辉 [Cheung Ka-fai], who also cut the previous film, and grounded photography by returning d.p. Ao Zhijun 敖志君 [Peter Ngor], which realistically shows the African landscape but has a newsreel-y intensity in the action sections. Zhang’s cutting in the setpieces – especially a street battle near the start, a knockout car chase through an infected township, and the tank finale – epitomises the film’s pragmatic approach, as well as being viscerally effective. The long finale, actually shot in China, and set in the old B-movie chestnut of a factory, is also superbly staged, blending martial arts and military stuff. In a surprise switch of composer to the US’ Joseph Trapanese (The Raid Serbuan maut, 2011), the score is okay but nothing special, despite its uplifting theme.
On the acting side, Wu shows glimmers of a warmer, more accessible screen persona and is clearly relaxed opposite his leading lady, Hong Kong-born, half-Chinese Lu Jingshan 卢靖姗 [Celina Jade], daughter of US martial artist Roy Horan (Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow 蛇形刁手, 1978). Now 32, Lu made an impressive screen debut as Wu’s leading lady in his iffy directorial bow, Legendary Assassin 狼牙 (2008), and though she’s lost that earlier freshness she’s gained in authority, here confidently playing a half-Chinese US doctor who conveniently speaks Mandarin.
Mainland character actor Wu Gang 吴刚 is fine as a PLA veteran, though his younger compatriot Zhang Han 张翰 (rom-com The Rise of a Tomboy 女汉子真爱公式, 2016) looks out of place in an action movie, as the cocky son of a rich businessman. Playing the snarling, racist, foreign mercenary leader – an essential role in any nationalist action movie – US character actor Frank Grillo (the crazed survivor in The Grey, 2011) hits his marks, and is supported by a heavyweight cast of other mercenaries on top form (Ukrainian wrestler Oleg Prudius, US stuntwoman Heidi Moneymaker). Mainland actress Yu Nan 余男, who played the female interest in Wolf Warrior, pops up in flashbacks, providing Wu’s hero with a motive for being in Africa.
For the record, WWII‘s box-office has creamed both the previous Chinese-language winner (Mermaid 美人鱼, 2016, RMB3.4 billion) and the foreign-language winner (The Fate of the Furious, 2017, RMB2.7 billion).
Presented by Beijing Dengfeng International Culture Communications (CN), Spring Era Film (CN), Jetsen Culture Industry Group (CN), Chao Feng Pictures (CN), Horgos Orange Image Media (CN), Khorgos Dengfeng International Culture Communications (CN).
Script: Wu Jing, Dong Qun, Liu Yi. Photography: Ao Zhijun [Peter Ngor]. Editing: Zhang Jiahui [Cheung Ka-fai]. Music: Joseph Trapanese. Art direction: Li Jingwen, Wang Ligang. Sound: Chris Ward, Hayden Collow, Michael Hedges, Gilbert Lake. Action: Sam Hargrave, Huang Weiliang [Jack Wong].
Cast: Wu Jing (Leng Feng), Frank Grillo (Big Daddy), Wu Gang (He Jianguo), Zhang Han (Zhuo Yifan), Lu Jingshan [Celina Jade] (Rachel Prescott Smith, doctor), Ding Haifeng (PLA Navy captain), Chunyu Shanshan (Lin Zhixiong, factory manager), Yu Nan (Long Xiaoyun, PLA Special Forces lieutenant colonel), Yu Qian (Qian Bida, supermarket owner), Shi Zhaoqi (Shi Qingsong, PLA Special Forces senior colonel), Ann James (Nessa, Tundu’s mother), Nwachukwu Kennedy Chukwuebuka (Tundu, Leng Feng’s godson), Diana Sylla (Pasha, Chen’s daughter), Song Duyu (Fan, Chinese ambassador), Guo Qiucheng (Chen, doctor), Oleg Prudius (Big Bear, mercenary), Heidi Moneymaker (Athena, mercenary), Aaron Toney (Cockroach, mercenary), Aaron Lee (Ghost, mercenary).
Release: China, 27 Jul 2017.