Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) ***
Director: Wu Jing
Runtime: 2h 6m
Categories: Direct from the Ministry of Truth
Despite the numerous internecine conflicts that have wracked the continent since the end of colonialism, there are almost no Western action movies set in Africa. Indeed, the few Hollywood films set in Africa usually belong to a more boring and measured class of productions than say Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (1985) or Predator (1987). Films that win awards and do not have the solution for most problems burst out of the barrel of a gun: Films like Blood Diamond (2006), The Constant Gardener (2005), and Hotel Rwanda (2004). Occasionally, the more serious variety of action movies depicts events on the Dark Continent, but usually they are drawn from real life stories like Black Hawk Down (2001) or 13 Hours (2016). There are several reason for this: a lack of clearly defined heroes and villains and a general feeling that the ongoing slaughter in some parts of Africa is too horrible to serve as the subject matter for a cheesy action movie. More important than any moral considerations though is how the various African wars are depicted in the Media. Though the US military’s involvement in Africa has been extensive since the end of the 2nd world war and the start of the American Century, the nature of that involvement has been rather indirect or confined to isolated strikes. There is no African Vietnam War to inspire generations of filmmakers, and the African theaters of the ongoing (and absurdly named) War on Terror have always been secondary to its Middle Eastern counterparts. Fortunately for our purposes, the Chinese have no such moral or imaginative limitations, as evidenced by the second entry in the Wolf Warrior series.
Leng Feng, the hero of Wolf Warrior (2015) has had a rough couple of years since last we saw him. While bringing the ashes of a fallen comrade back to his village, Leng ran afoul of the village’s local bigwigs/land developers/triads. The land developers were right in the middle of tearing down the fallen soldier’s house and did not see why their work should be interrupted for something as trivial as a funeral. The bad guys try to take out their frustration on Leng and his comrades, but find quickly that they have bitten off more than they can chew. However, the leader of the bad guys promises that he will have his vengeance on the fallen soldier’s family once Leng and his army buddies head back to base. Given the situation you’ll hardly blame Leng for kicking the bastard to death. While his superiors may be just as certain of Leng’s righteousness, they can’t exactly let one of their non-commissioned officers go around dispensing vigilante justice, no matter how justified it may be. Leng is kicked out of the PLA and thrown into jail. While in jail, Leng’s love interest from the first movie, Long Xiaoyun, is killed by mercenaries in a border skirmish. The bullet they recover from the site is a peculiar one that Leng traces to Africa. Leng journeys to the Africa, working his way as a security guard on ships (an important and dangerous job given the prevalence of pirates in the area), all the while looking for the mercenaries who killed his love.
When the movie opens, he is relaxing after a dangerous voyage, and drinking a copious amount of baijiu (Chinese grain alcohol, most similar to Western moonshine) to dull the pain of his tragic past. It’s at that point that the Red Scarf Rebellion makes its bid for power and launches a surprise attack on the capital city of the undisclosed African country that Wolf Warrior 2 takes place in. These rebels are easily identified by their eponymous red winter wear, though why anyone would want to wear a scarf in the middle of an African Summer is beyond me (probably they are named after the famous Chinese insurgency, the Yellow Scarf/Turban Rebellion). Leng leads a group of Africans and Chinese citizens, including his “godson” through the chaos, until they reach the safety of the Chinese embassy. In a rare nod to realism, the movie makes no attempt to romanticize either the government forces or the Red Scarf Rebels. Just like in real life African civil wars, both sides give every indication of being murderous thugs. The only good guys in a position of authority are the Chinese diplomatic and military forces stationed in the country; but then it wouldn’t be much of a propaganda movie if this weren’t the case.
The Chinese have dispatched a flotilla to evacuate their citizens from the war torn republic, they even make allowances for Leng’s black “godson” and his mother. Only problem is that quite a few Chinese citizens are still stranded inland, and while the commander of the PLA flotilla would like nothing more than to eradicate the rebel forces surrounding them, such an action would be a political disaster. Until the UN makes a ruling, the Chinese forces in the country are suppose to remain officially neutral. Leng helpfully volunteers to go in alone, as he is no longer officially part of the PLA there will be no political fallout if he screws up or gets captured. He sets off to rescue Dr. Chen, an MD studying Lamanla, a malaria-like disease that has been ravaging the country for some time now, and the Chinese workers of a nearby factory.
Leng finds Dr. Chen easily enough, but so does a team of foreign mercenaries led by the absurdly named “Big Daddy” (unfortunately he does not wear a diving suit or fight with a massive mining drill). The Red Scarf Rebellion nominally employs Big Daddy and his soldiers of fortune, but really the mercenaries are after Chen’s research into the Lamanla virus for their own ends. Just what those ends are, I never figured out, I suppose selling the resulting vaccine to a pharmaceutical company and making a fortune. Big Daddy has ordered his subordinate, Bear a Russian mercenary played by a former professional wrestler who has the physique and personality of Zangief, to capture Dr. Chen alive. Bear was obviously sleeping through his briefings for this mission though, because he has no idea who Dr. Chen is, how old he is, or even what his gender is. Bear solves this intelligence issue by getting everyone in the entire hospital together and interrogating each one at gunpoint: “Are you Dr. Chen? Are you Dr. Chen?” Obviously, this is a recipe for Spartacus (1960) syndrome, with everyone trying to play martyr for the rest of the hospital.
The first part of Leng’s mission is a complete failure, ending with Dr. Chen dead, the mercenaries in hot pursuit, and Leng himself infected with the Lamanla virus. Dr. Chen, with his dying breath asks Leng to get his daughter to safety. The part about this being his daughter is an obvious lie (Chen is Chinese, the girl is African) but nobody calls Chen on this. I know that Americans are uniquely obsessed with race, but this strikes me as being color-bind to a ludicrous degree. Obviously, the girl is not really Chen’s daughter; she is his latest test subject, someone who has been made completely immune to the dreaded Lamanla virus, and the key to developing a general vaccine. Big Daddy and his mercenaries are able to deduce this much from what they find at the hospital and immediately disregard the orders they’ve received from the Red Scarf leader to chase after Leng and the girl. Our hero, accompanied by the girl/Macguffin and Dr. Rachel Smith, escape to the relative safety of the Chinese-run factory housing the next bunch of Chinese citizens that Leng is suppose to rescue.
The factory’s annoying young manager Zhuo Yifan has turned it into a veritable fortress. Well, at least he takes the credit for the fortifications; his seasoned head of security, He Jianguo did all the work (naturally He is a former PLA scout). The factory has held up pretty well until now, being intimidating enough to discourage the rebel or government forces from attacking it. However, once Leng and the girl show up the factory becomes a target for Big Daddy’s mercenaries, and whatever support they can drum out of the Red Scarf Rebels. What’s more, the Chinese factory workers refuse to abandon their African colleagues to the wolves, so an airlift out of the danger zone is going to be all but impossible.
The original Wolf Warrior caught my eye because of its inversion of Western action movie conventions and its impossibly inept CGI. Wolf Warrior 2 drops both these, leaving a much more familiar action movie but one that is solidly executed nonetheless. Whereas the original Wolf Warrior told the story of several hundred, effectively indistinguishable PLA soldiers as they battled a multi-national/multi-ethnic band of sinister mercenaries with highly personalized appearances and equipment, Wolf Warrior 2 tells the story of a retired super-soldier’s quest for vengeance after he is pulled into action for one last job. It’s sort of a compromise between Death Wish 2 (1982) and Commando (1985) making it far less interesting to me than its predecessor. However, while the premise is far less interesting than the original the execution has become considerably more polished. The action sequences are legitimately exciting, despite the seeming invulnerability of the sympathetic characters. Best of all, they are infused with a slight zaniness that teeters satisfyingly on the brink of complete absurdity. For instance, in one scene Leng deflects an RPG using a bed frame (don’t try this one at home kids, though if my younger readers have unrestricted access to an RPG launcher they probably have more serious problems that imitating ludicrous action movies). The hand-to-hand fight scenes are the highlight here, which makes it something of a disappointment given that the vast majority of the action focuses on gunplay.
Minor complaints aside, it’s difficult to find a film that feels as earnest as Wolf Warrior 2. Like its predecessor, it is a propaganda movie, but I never doubt for a moment that this propaganda is anything but a natural reflection of the director/produce/star’s own, admittedly naïve, patriotism. It even ends with a message directed to Chinese citizens abroad, assuring them that: Your country is on your side, no matter what and they will never abandon you. I’ll confess to finding this message especially touching, and even enviable. After all, my own government seems more interested in lying to me, robbing me, and spying on me than with making any effort to protect or aid me. I know that the film is mostly spouting propaganda, but it is a testament t how well made it is that the propaganda even works on somebody so far from its intended target. You could fault Wolf Warrior 2 for never bothering to critically examine China’s government or military, but doing so would make you nearly as absurd as those loons that complain about hegemonic violence in Predator (1987) or Cobra (1986).