Back in the 1980s, I was addicted to American action movies, especially the First Blood series starring Sylvester Stallone and the Delta Force series starring Chuck Norris. They were the coolest badasses on the earth, invincible and ruthless yet kind-hearted.
I was particularly struck by Norris’ character in The Delta Force, Major Scott McCoy, who was the ultimate American hero, leading a team of special forces commandos to take down terrorists without breaking a sweat. The propaganda of cocksure, righteous Americans reigning supreme over the evil in the world was evident throughout the movie – as the action and suspense unfolded, the American flag badges on the shoulders of the commandos served as a constant reminder.
By contrast, the action movie genre was almost non-existent in China, where propagandists frowned upon superheroes and instead directed filmmakers to extol the leadership of the Communist Party. Meanwhile, the appeal of kung fu movies starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li, mostly made in Hong Kong, could not quite measure up to the films of Stallone and Norris.
Thirty years later, all this provides the context to the explosive debut of the Chinese action movie Wolf Warrior II, starring Wu Jing, who also scripted and produced the movie, which has taken the nation by storm. Since its July 27 premier, the movie has racked up 4.5 billion yuan in ticket sales and looks set to reach 5 billion yuan (HK$5.85) soon, making it the highest grossing film in China and by some estimates among the top 100 grossing movies in the world.
WATCH: Wolf Warrior II trailer
For the Western audience, the movie may sound familiar and generic enough. It portrays a former Chinese special forces commando, dishonourably discharged after brawling with thugs who tried to evict the family members of a dead comrade from his house, who finds himself eking out a living in an unnamed African country.
After a civil war breaks out, he almost single-handedly takes out a small army of bad guys led by a sadistic American mercenary as he tries to protect and evacuate the Chinese workers to safety.
But for the Chinese audience, Wolf Warrior II has finally delivered an action movie that measures up to the big budget Hollywood blockbusters and gives them a superhero in the character Leng Feng (which literally means ‘Cold Front’) played by Wu, a national kung fu champion himself.
The film delivers non-stop action featuring explosions, gun battles and kung fu acrobatics. The opening sequence of underwater fighting, Leng’s manoeuvring with armed drones, and a climatic tank battle are just some of the highlights.
The film betters the Delta Force series in wearing its patriotism and jingoistic sentiments on its sleeve – Leng mocks the US marines in one scene and in another, he raises a red, five-star national flag when the convoy of evacuating Chinese workers is blocked by the rebels. The ensuing scene that shows the rebels allowing the convoy to pass conjures up the rising power of China.
Towards the end, a Chinese passport cover fills the screen with the words: “citizens of the People’s Republic of China: when you are in danger overseas, don’t give up. Please remember a strong motherland is behind you”.
The scene has gone down well with audiences. Some reports have referred to film-goers applauding, standing up and singing the national anthem.
Reviewers in state media including the People’s Daily and Xinhua have lapped it up, heaping praise on the patriotism and national honour the film displays.
It is interesting to note that media interviews with Wu suggest the film’s prospects had not been bright initially when Wu tried to solicit funding and cast actors. Many leading actors and actresses turned him down and potential financial backers wanted to impose various restrictions on how the film was plotted and filmed, all of which suggested concerns over whether such a nationalistic popcorn flick would succeed. In the end, Wu reportedly mortgaged his house to raise 80 million yuan to help meet the funding requirements. Now Wu is the one laughing all the way to the bank as he is reportedly set to make at least 400 million yuan.
In making the film, Wu has accurately taken the pulse of the times. China has secured a seat at the head table of leading powers in an increasingly polarising and volatile world where Chinese investments have made significant inroads overseas but have also exposed those businesses and workers to myriad risks and perils in politically unstable countries across Asia and Africa. The evacuation of the Chinese workers, the main theme in the movie, reminds many of the massive evacuation of tens of thousands of Chinese workers from war-torn Libya in 2011.
At the end of the film, another sequel is promised, which has led some media to hail a new era of Chinese tough guy action-adventure films poised to take on Hollywood. Already, some enthusiastic fans and media have suggested that aliens should be the baddies next time around, a scenario that has featured in many American films.
But contrary to hype in the domestic media that the film attracted full houses in the United States, Britain, Australia and elsewhere, there are suggestions that these audiences are mainly made up of overseas Chinese or Chinese nationals studying or working abroad.
The bubbling enthusiasm and patriotism over the film have drowned out dissenting voices. So far, only one person has stuck her neck out – a teacher from the Central Academy of Drama who came on television to blast the film for peddling violence and for its flimsy and unrealistic plot. Indeed, until Wolf Warrior II, Chinese censors had largely frowned upon graphic depictions of violence in Chinese cultural products, fearing a negative impact on youngsters.
For instance, Chinese officials and media have repeatedly attacked the developers of popular computer games featuring gun battles and violence.
To end on a light note: as the discussions of the film’s phenomenal success continue, it has even been referenced in regards to a viral story featuring nine Chinese passengers who were denied access to an Air China flight from Paris to Macau via Beijing. The passengers were prevented from boarding their flight on the grounds they had only Chinese passports, but no separate entry permits to Macau, a special administrative region of China. The headline that has accompanied the story? “Wolf Warrior II tells you holding Chinese passports can get you back home safely? Air China: No Way!” ■