How American cinema has changed since the 1980s, I’ll use the action film as the conduit to make this point. Back then we had ridiculously over the top, jingoistic, star vehicles centred around a handful of names. Now, those films are shot and financed exclusively in European, the quality of the star is incomparable and they are far more disposable than ever. With all that considered, the action film is substantially worse off. In their stead, the American industry has thrown its weight behind established franchises. But I’m not here to chastise what has come to be or wear rose tinted glasses, no, for there is a new CineAsia film in cinemas in Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior 2 that makes all this relevant.
Wu Jing both stars and directs the sequel to 2015’s Wolf Warrior, in this iteration those uniquely 1980s action tropes are rescued from irrelevance and infused with Chinese jingoism instead of American and the choreography of a modern day martial arts. This is more an energetically choreographed Expendables (with a cast who wants to be there) than Eastern Condors (Sammo Hung). Hence, it may be on release from a martial arts label, but to call it a martial arts film wouldn’t be entirely accurate.
Whether it be martial arts or unabashed western action, plot and narrative have never been on top of the list of priorities and Wolf Warrior 2 is no different. The film starts with Wu Jing preventing a deceased friend’s home being plowed over and redeveloped by a local gang by kicking the leader clean through the windshield of an adjacent police car. The aforementioned friend featured heavily in the first film as presented through flashbacks and the first of many heavy waves of overstated melodrama. It’d be hilarious if it wasn’t so sincere. Expelled from the wolf warrior corps and serving a prison sentence, we meet him on the other side in Africa and subject to some of the most ostentatious hero worship this side of a [Christopher Reeve] Superman movie. He even has an African god son. From there, a rebellion kicks off and in the violence a key Chinese doctor [and Wu Jing’s godson’s mother] are trapped behind enemy lines, a development which sees the former wolf warrior head off to save these people from the rebel forces and the power hunger of a private militia fronted by Frank Grillo’s ‘Big Daddy’. Stuck in the middle are a plague-like illness, a potential cure and a mysterious bullet that killed another character from the first film.
This may well be the first Chinese martial arts of action film set in Africa, unfortunately, it’s not the subtlest depiction of the largest hospitable continent on the planet. Wolf Warrior 2 operates by stereotypes; the mother of the god son is a sassy overweight black woman that has become one of the unavoidable tropes of modern pop culture. Here, she slaps an elbow drop on one of the enemies Wu Jing beat. All of the other African characters are fodder for either the heroes of Frank Grillo’s private military force, rather shallowly. Subtlety is nowhere to be seen.
However, like I have previously mentioned, all this is of little importance when it comes to the enjoyment of the film. The very first scene sees a boat off the African Gulf attacked by pirates and instead of succumbing to gun fire or retaliating in like, the film does something very different. Wu Jing beats all the pirates up underwater. While the resistance of water does negate the impact of the action, it does look incredibly striking and does a great job at building up the legend of Wu Jing’s Leng Feng. Towards the business end of the film, there is another occurrence that I, as a long time genre fan, have never seen and that is a tank fight. While the plot is much of a muchness when placed in the spiritual likeness to those 1980s action films, its director and action and fight choreographers (Aaron Toney & Jack Wai-Leung Wong) are trying to innovate, doing things that fans have never seen before.
With that in mind, Frank Grillo is an interesting inclusion. Not only is his presence a further example of the allure and power the Chinese film industry is accruing – it will be the biggest film industry in the world, sooner rather than later. While his character is bad because he wants to be and little is required of him beyond looking evil and menacing, there is a clever narrative to the action. Just like a horror film has to build up to a final act that is scarier than everything that preceded it, action needs the hero to face harder and harder odds before finally saving the day (or dying horribly if you look at films from the turn of the 21st century).
Between the fluidity of the military precision shared between Jing and military veteran turned security guard (Gang Wu) or straight Wushu, every fight is an increasing struggle. There is the challenge of the sniper Athena (Heidi Moneymaker) and the obvious implied qualities of Bear (Oleg Prudius), but where else is there to go after all the bullets have been fired? All the fight training and choreography in the world won’t prevent the audience failing to believe that Frank Grillo could be more impressive than those he leads and be realistically able to defeat the hero. CQC and a vicious streak found only in Gareth Evan’s film (The Raid) are the answer, through this military martial art Grillo becomes a credible threat in both performance and dramatic weight whereby the hero could easily die. Of course, this is another vehicle through which the wailing melodrama can move, but as a peak to an action film, it’s almost flawless.
Wolf Warrior 2 is never subtle, it’s drowned in honking, flag-waving Chinese melodrama and its representation of Africa is hollow beyond its photographic beauty. As weak as that sounds, there is a major caveat here – this film is as wonderfully over-the-top as it constantly entertaining. Another way to phrase it would be the perfect antidote to the state of modern western action cinema if a little on the long side. It’s great to have big action like this back with us especially with talent both behind and in front of the camera.
WOLF WARRIOR II IS PLAYING IN SELECTED CINEMAS NATIONWIDE
CMC Pictures & CineAsia – Screening at:
Odeon London Panton St
Vue London Westfield Stratford
Vue Manchester Printworks
Odeon Liverpool Switch Island