Wolf Warrior (2015) ***1/2
Director: Wu Jing
Runtime: 1h 30m
Categories: Direct from the Ministry of Truth
First things first: I am an American. Indeed, as my wife is keen to note: I am frequently intolerably American. I note this because today I’m taking a break from my usual rounds of old sci-fi and horror films to review a Chinese action/propaganda movie. My Americanism does not bias me against foreign propaganda films; indeed, I like them considerably better than their American counterparts. I always feel that American propaganda films are trying to lie me, and fool me into thinking something. I find this notion mildly offensive, because it assumes I’m so easily swayed that a fictional movie will make me reconsider my worldview. Foreign propaganda films leave no such bitter taste in my mouth, and consequently can be much more enjoyable. This is exactly why I opened this review by calling attention to the fact that I’m American. No doubt some Chinese viewers watched this film and shouted out “中国屌爆了!” in joyous raptures, while others just shook their heads in the mild embarrassment that filled me when I watched the trailer for 13 Hours (2016). As an American I’m just not going to have that kind of response to this film. Bereft of any emotional touchstone, I can only approach this movie as a goofy action film, with laughably bad CGI, some great fight scenes, and a few interesting points of comparison between it and American action/propaganda movies.
Showing a remarkably low-estimate for its audience’s attention spans, Wolf Warrior opens immediately with a thrilling action sequence, consisting of rapid cuts of a military assited police raid on a drug laboratory. The raid goes well, until the head-honcho of the drug lab grabs a hostage and threatens to blow his brains out if the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doesn’t arrange his transportation out of the country. The soldiers and police are ordered to stand down, but sniper Leng Feng (who is also the film’s writer and director) regards that as more of a recommendation than a command. Only problem is that the hostile is cowering behind a concrete column, so Leng Feng does the only logical thing and shoots the column in the exact same of the column again and again, until his bullets can penetrate. Most of the PLA brass regard this as a reckless disregard for orders, but Long Xiaoyun, the commander a special force unit named the War Wolves, likes the cut of Leng Feng’s jib and invites him to join her unit.
Since there’s no actual war going on, the War Wolves and the rest of the PLA are staying sharp with an elaborate combat exercise. Basically, a huge military force goes to some desolate wilderness on the edge of the Chinese border, splits off into various teams and then proceeds to have the most badass game of paintball imaginable. Leng Feng, being the protagonist, immediately distinguishes himself as both a capable marksman, and a clever strategist by tagging one of the enemy commanders. In the process he earns the respect of his fellow War Wolves and begins to draw romantic attention from Long Xioyun. It’s all fairly tedious 2nd act stuff, with the exception of the wacky gear that the PLA employs for these maneuvers. Special forces soldiers are outfitted with Fallout Pip Boys (or at least that’s what they look like to me), while the command staff makes heavy use of wacky holograms for all strategic decisions. I have no idea if the real PLA uses anything remotely similar to this tech, but I sure hope so!
All is not well though, as unbeknownst to Leng Feng, the man that he killed at the drug laboratory is really the brother of international crime lord Min Deng. Min Deng assembles a team of foreign mercenaries, mostly from Western countries, led by Tom Cat, a former US Navy Seal who became a solider of fortune after his retirement. Tom Cat is played by Scott Adkins, who makes a great villain, though it is a bit jarring to hear an American Navy Seal speak with a British accent. I’m guessing the filmmakers have never heard of the SAS. Min Deng wants vengeance for his brother, but being a calculating businessman decides that it would be a shame to go through so much trouble for merely personal reasons. So, he combines the plot with another scheme, using the confusion of his mercenary soldiers attack on the PLA forces to slip across the border with some precious cargo. It’s never explicitly said what this cargo is, but when we get a look at it, it appears to be a bunch of vials filled with blood. Possible some kind of blood-born bioweapon? Who knows? Anyway, from here on out the rest of the movie is all action sequences and patriotic rah-rahs.
Most commentators on this film note its resemblance to a Regan-era American macho movie like Commando (1985) or Cobra (1986). Such a comparison is natural enough, as the action is ludicrous, and the patriotic overtones are so over the top that they border on parody. However, no account of this film I’ve read yet has noted the most interesting difference between Wolf Warrior and the American films that it plainly models itself on. American action movies are almost all about either a lone hero besting all-comers, or a small elite squadron with highly personalized weapons and fighting styles (most obviously The Expendables (2010), but also The Dirty Dozen (1967) and the Magnificent Seven (1960) certainly qualify). In either case the American heroes are always pitted against numerically superior enemy force with indistinguishable equipment and techniques. The script is entirely flipped in Wolf Warrior, with a small elite group of bad guys waging war against a vast army of heroic Chinese. So complete is this inversion that if you were to watch the film’s action sequences without subtitles or knowledge of Chinese the average American viewer would probably assume that the vile mercenaries were the good guys! Weather this is the result of some cultural difference between the United States and China (an individualist society vs. a collectivist), or simply an accurate representation of the PLA’s image of itself I’ll leave to scholars more intimately acquainted with the Middle Kingdom. All I know is that it’s utterly fascinating to watch for anyone who has watched half as many formulaic action movies as I have.
From a technical standpoint, Wolf Warriors is a hilariously mixed bag. The fight choreography is excellent, as will surprise no one who has seen a Chinese action movie made in the last 50 years. Hell, the average Shaw Brothers comedy from the 70s has more thrilling violence than most modern American action movies. Yet, while the Chinese film industry has undoubtedly master the art of practical effects and stunt work, their expertise in CGI still lags far behind Western rivals. The wolves that battle our PLA heroes are the most glaring example. Seriously, these things would look like junk if they were feature in a sci-fi channel movie of the week. However, the goofy CGI, when mixed with the deadpan seriousness of the rest of the film, becomes all the more entertaining.