Original title: Zhan lang
D: Jing Wu / 90m
Cast: Jing Wu, Nan Yu, Scott Adkins, Dahong Ni, Xiao Zhou, Qiang Ma, Zhaoqi Shi, Zibin Fang, Sen Wang, Tengyuan Liu, Yongda Zhang, Xiaolong Zhuang, Yi Zhao, Zi Liang
Action movies, when executed properly, can provide some of the most exhilarating movie moments it’s possible to experience. From John McClane’s exhortation to “take this under advisement, jerkweed” before dumping a chair load of C4 down a lift shaft in Die Hard (1988), to the spectacular destruction of the White House in Independence Day (1996), and the lobby shootout in The Matrix (1999), the movies have given us the kind of goosebump-inducing, jaw-dropping moments that make us want to go back to them time and again, so impressive are they.
But the flipside of this is the number of action movies that fail to deliver even the barest hint of one of these moments. There’s more of them, of course, and they often fall back on tried and trusted elements: running gunfire that never hits anyone, pyrotechnics rather than proper explosions, poorly orchestrated hand-to-hand combat (the kind of heavily edited sequences that end up looking as if they’ve had frames cut here and there), a scenario that sees one lone hero fend off an army of soldiers/mercenaries/thugs, a sneering villain who meets a nasty end (if the script is clever enough), a romantic interest who may or may not be abducted by the sneering villain, and/or a daring rescue mission that means certain death if anyone attempts it – usually against a heavily fortified hideout. (There are plenty of other, similar elements, but you get the general idea.)
It’s easy to take some comfort from all this familiarity; after all, action movies are often the cinematic equivalent of socially sanctioned vigilantism, even if there’s a police officer involved (a la Dirty Harry Callahan). After policemen, action movies like to employ members of the military as their protagonists, ex-soldiers home on leave in their troubled hometown, or maverick individuals who have trouble following orders. Again, it’s comforting; these characters know how to handle themselves, they know how to comfortably beat up a minor bad guy (and several of his buddies), and their grit and detemination will allow them to overcome all kinds of injuries and take down the sneering villain.
All of which makes watching Wolf Warrior such a pleasant, though unremarkable experience. Many of the basic action movie tropes are here, from Jing Wu’s stoic yet romantically cocky sniper Leng Feng, to the top brass (Yu, Zhou) forced to watch events unfold from a command room, and the leader of a group of mercenaries (Adkins) whose resourcefulness proves no match for the hero (and who is reduced to, yes, sneering). Leng also overcomes several injuries sustained throughout the movie, including a gunshot wound to the left shoulder that he promptly ignores. It’s all entirely predictable stuff, competently shot and edited, but offering little in the way of reward for the viewer.
It’s comforting, though, because this is a Chinese action movie, but it has the look and feel of an American low budget action movie but with a few extra dollars spent on it. Its basic plot – sniper kills drug dealer, drug dealer’s brother hires mercenaries to kill sniper – is very basic indeed, but the screenplay (by Wu and three others) wanders away from it so often and so consistently, the average viewer could be forgiven for thinking the basic plot, if the makers had stuck to it exclusively, would have led to the movie lasting maybe fifty minutes tops. And there are several narrative decisions and developments that imply the script was made up as the production progressed, from the inclusion of a scene where Leng and his fellow wolf warriors (they’re an elite Chinese army outfit) fend off a pack of badly CGI-rendered wolves, to the idea that trying to kill Feng would best be achieved while he’s on manoeuvres and surrounded by dozens of fellow soldiers (the mercenaries are only five in number).
The mix of action movie tropes and Chinese movie making sensibilities leads to Wolf Warrior having its fair share of comedy moments too. Wu can’t resist making Leng the kind of chirpy, up for a laugh character who would usually end up as cannon fodder at some point in other action movies, and while he can be serious when required, it’s a strange sight to see him holding back on grinning when Leng steps on a mine. He also spends as much time as possible flirting with his superior (Nan Yu), which of course is reciprocated so that they can ride off together at the end (there’s no sunset, but it’s implied). And Leng’s maverick anti-authority tendencies, the subject of an enquiry at the beginning, are soon applauded once the mercenaries are defeated and the drug dealer’s brother is apprehended at the border.
In the director’s chair, Wu proves to be an erratic presence, strangely confident when focusing on scenes that don’t involve any action, and unable to muster any tension or excitement in the scenes that do. Fans of both Wu and Adkins will be waiting for their final showdown with a fair degree of anticipation, but that anticipation is soon dispatched by the fight’s pedestrian moves and awkward wire work (it’s over too quickly as well). Adkins, whose presence in low budget action movies is often the best thing about them, is saddled with some dreadful dialogue, but he still manages to inject his character with enough venom to make his appearance fairly memorable, while Wu and his fellow cast members play up their stereotypical roles in such a way that the words ‘by rote’ spring to mind.
All this makes it sound as if Wolf Warrior is one to avoid, but while it’s certainly not a good movie, it does have a certain charm that redeems it somewhat. The Chinese setting is different, even if the overall mise-en-scene is overly familiar, and there are times when the absurdity of it all is more than capable of bringing a smile to the viewer’s face. Aside from several patriotic nods to the sanctity of the Republic of China, the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and its running time keeps things lean and (occasionally) mean. Fans of Asian cinema might want to check it out, but if they do, they’d do well to keep their expectations in check.
Rating: 5/10 – the usual vagaries of Chinese movie making – story developments that don’t make complete sense, less than consistent characterisations, narrative inconsistencies, haphazard editing – are all present and correct in Wolf Warrior, but can’t completely derail what is basically an inoffensive, painless viewing experience; the kind of movie that’s perfectly suited to an evening’s viewing with pizza and beers, it’s an action thriller that doesn’t try too hard and should be approached accordingly.