A loose-cannon ex-special forces soldier is released from prison and ends up in an African country fighting local rebels and cutthroat arms dealers. And amid the bullet-carrying drones, tank chase scenes and one-on-one fisticuffs with super villains, the hero manages to romance a beautiful woman.
Sound like a Hollywood action film? Well, the plot and characters may suggest it, but “Wolf Warrior 2” is actually a Chinese-made movie with a Chinese lead actor, African refugees and a white Western villain. It broke the domestic box office record earlier this week.
Wu Jing was both director and star of the film, which has drawn somewhat tepid critical reviews despite its commercial success. Still, the movie has been hailed by fans as the most authentic superhero film ever portrayed in a Chinese film.
“Wu Jing has created a real Chinese hero,” commented Du She Film, a popular film critic with 5 million followers on Weibo. “The typical Chinese hero in previous patriotic movies was usually impossibly perfect. This one is different. He is arrested and expelled at the beginning of the movie. He drinks too much and loses control of himself. He is a real person, something most previous films of this genre failed to achieve.”
“Wolf Warrior 2” cost 200 million yuan (US$30 million) to make. It hit the screens on July 27 and within two weeks broke the domestic box-office record of 3.39 billion yuan previously set by Stephen Chow’s 2016 fantasy-comedy “The Mermaid.”
Gross revenue has already surpassed 4 billion yuan, with analysts estimating it could end up earning between 5 billion and 6 billion yuan. “Wolf Warrior 3” is already in the works.
The movie, with English subtitles, has had limited release in cinemas in the United States, Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom.
The runaway success of the film took many by surprise. “We initially estimated it to gross about 1.2 billion yuan, and I revised that to 1.5 billion after seeing the competed film, but I never expected it to become such a phenomenon,” Jiang Wusheng, one of the film’s distributors, told the media.
Foreign action movies based on Marvel Comics characters have swept the Chinese market in the past few years, and many Chinese filmmakers have tried and failed to come up with a domestic superhero to match.
The first “Wolf Warrior,” which premiered two summers ago, grossed 560 million yuan. It was considered a dark horse after Wu spent years convincing investors to back the production.
The actor, 43, is not a superstar of the status of Jackie Chan or Jet Li or Donnie Yen, though he has appeared in several Hong Kong kung fu films. Some investors weren’t convinced that a Chinese-made superhero film would resonate with audiences, since so many previous domestic action films were martial arts movies without guns or car chases or were nationalistic movies dismissed as patriotic propaganda.
Wu said in a recent interview that many people have a stereotyped image of patriotic films as something apart from commercial movies.
“Why do we have to separate them?” he asked. “‘Wolf Warrior 2’ has every element a commercial blockbuster requires.”
The emergence of this summer mega-movie is reminiscent of the success of the 2012 comedy “Lost in Thailand.” It was the first Chinese movie to gross more than 1 billion yuan, surprising and charming audiences in a market that lacked domestic comedies.
Similarly, the market has also been devoid of domestic action blockbusters and Chinese heroes.
While Hollywood films often glorify underdogs, Chinese patriotic films and TV have typically portrayed leading men as flawless heroes. They are often so unrealistic that they bore audiences. However, the line between good and bad in Chinese films and TV is beginning to blur.
For example, the hit TV series “In the Name of the People” drew its plot from China’s anti-corruption campaign. Most investors shunned the project because they didn’t think the subject matter would appeal to young audiences. Yet, surprisingly, the show became one of the most popular on TV in the first half of this year. Young viewers were captivated by the intriguing characters and the conniving shenanigans of some government officials.
In somewhat the same way, the “Wolf Warrior” series is redefining the image of the Chinese soldier.
Wu’s character, Leng Feng, has been kicked out of the army. He goes to an unnamed African country where a military coup has broken out and tries to rescue a Chinese scientist trapped there. In the end, he saves both Chinese and African employees of a Chinese-invested factory from local renegades and Western mercenaries.
The film’s patriotic theme, its passionate portrait of a Chinese soldier and Leng’s incredible feats of bravado have all become the subjects of fierce public debate, making it one of the most talked-about films in Chinese movie-making.
On douban.com, China’s version of IMDB, the film is rated 7.5 out of 10. On the Western Rotten Tomatoes site, critics gave it 2.5 out of 10, though the audience rating was 90 percent favorable.
The film’s detractors say the plot is illogical and the theme is too nationalistic.
“The film was entertaining for the most part, but I found it awkward when the protagonist waves the Chinese flag through the war zone and both parties just stop firing and let the Chinese through,” says 28-year-old Wang Haili, an action film fan. “I read later that the scene was inspired by real events, but, still, it felt weird to see that on the screen.”
Those who love the film cite the same scene as an adrenalin moment.
“I felt my blood surge when the flag was waving on the screen,” says 19-year-old college student Lin Jina. “I never realized that I am such a patriot. All my friends and classmates are speaking so highly of the film. They are passionate about it, and I can understand why. I never thought I’d see such an exciting domestic movie. Wu Jing is a real fighter.”
In a recent interview, Wu disparaged critics who found the superhero’s exploits a bit unconvincing.
“They asked how come I’m not killed in the film,” Wu said. “Well, you can watch an American movie where the hero beats a whole troop of armed soldiers without even getting a scratch and think he is super cool. You see a Chinese like me beating a handful of foreign mercenaries, and you say that I must die? Say what you will, but I despise those who think what’s okay for American heroes is impossible for Chinese. There is nothing wrong with portraying Chinese soldiers as brave because that’s how they are.”
(Stanley Chu contributed to this article.)
What audiences are saying
• Kuroking Cheng, 12
Middle school student
“The tanks are real cool. I love the part when they are drifting with the tanks — super awesome. There are many illogical parts in the plot, like why the villain just keeps chasing them. He has finished his task and could have just taken the money and enjoyed the rest of his life. But action films are like that, right? You can’t be too serious about that. After all, Leng Feng is a real man. It’s better to watch him than pretty boys and girls in silly fantasy movies.”
• Emma Shen, 27
Online shop owner
“I liked the first ‘Wolf Warrior,’ so we watched the sequel on the first weekend it was out. The theater was more crowded than ever. The first film was good but you could see it was small budget. It had a B-movie feel to it. This one is 10 times bigger and better.”
• Li Ningchen, 36
Supply chain manager
“I was so excited to see Wu Jing waving the Chinese flag through the war zone. China is a great country and has a big impact in the world now, but we have been low-key for so many years that many of us are not used to this fact. I would love to see more of this. “
• Cheng Minjie, 41
“I’m so busy that I don’t usually have time to go to cinemas. I don’t actually remember the last Chinese movie I watched in a cinema. Usually I go for the Marvel movies or ‘Fast and Furious’ or ‘The Expendables.’ My son and wife both recommended ‘Wolf Warrior,’ saying I would definitely like it. It’s got some exciting action, but overall it looks like a Hollywood blockbuster of 10 years ago.
Wu Jing is really cool in the film, especially because he is a kung fu guy in real life. I don’t think the patriotic scenes stood out that much. It seemed a natural part of the plot. I look forward to the third one.”
• Zhang An, 69
Retired factory manager
“It’s a good movie, very entertaining and fast-paced. It’s also got some humor. Patriotic movies are usually quite boring, but this one is different.
It’s just a very good action movie that shows how tough and great Chinese soldiers are. I finally have some reason to go to the cinema, and the young people can watch some real movies with uplifting messages. I think they should make more of this kind of movie.”
Australian moviegoer on IMDB.com
“‘Wolf Warrior 2’ is a superior sequel that hits the ground running and never lets up. Modern action films have become too sophisticated for their own good. Plots are overly convoluted with unnecessarily complicated character backstories, bloated run times and villains having overly complex motivations to be evil. ‘Wolf Warrior 2’ is a reminder of simpler times, when it's perfectly OK to have a straightforward story backed-up by identifiable characters, damsels-in-distress saved by the male hero, and two-dimensional villains who just enjoy being evil.”
• Noel Murray
Los Angeles Times movie critic
“While ‘Wolf Warrior 2’ is blandly generic more often than not, there's something bracing about its patriotic fervor, which asserts that the Chinese will act in the best interests of the world's downtrodden, while the rest of the world just exploits them. If nothing else, it’s fascinating to see a film so closely mimic big-budget Hollywood war pictures, but from an opposing sociopolitical perspective.”