TL;DR – Wolf Warriors 2 brings Chinese propaganda films into the 21st century, however, it fails in presenting a solid story and in the production of many of its effects.
Score – 2 out of 5
P.S. – There is a mid-credit scene
Well wasn’t this an interesting film, Wolf Warriors 2 is a film creating buzz across the world, and has broken box office records in its home China, so today we’re going to have a look to see if Wolf Warriors II holds up. Now before we start, I do have to make it clear that I have not seen the first film in the series, so I may have missed some of the nuances, however, the film does a good job of giving you all of the basic reminders of what happened, elite soldiers, one sacrificed themselves for the team, and there was a love interest. Which brings us to the start of the film, so let’s dive into the world of Wolf Warriors II. Now to do this we will be breaking down the production elements of the film, and then we will be looking at the story, and finally examining themes at play.
So to set the scene, Leng Feng (Wu Jing) is a member of the elite Wolf Warriors, a Special Forces branch of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). At the start of the film, he and his squad mate’s return to deliver the ashes of their fallen comrade to his grieving family interrupting an unscrupulous property developer that is illegally demolishing people’s homes. After fighting off the developer’s goons the developer tells Leng Feng to kill him because when he is gone ‘the family will wish they were dead’ so Leng obliges, killing the developer in front of the police. Well, he gets sent to jail, and while he is there the love of his life is killed on a mission on the border leaving only a unique bullet as a clue as to who did it. So when Leng leaves jail he signs onto a container ship that travels around Africa to hunt the source of that bullet. Well, he has found a lead only it is in a country that is about to explode into civil war. Now it is not shown in that particular order, but this should give you the basic understanding of all the main motivations for the start of the film.
Now I wanted to start with the technical side of the film because it perfectly captures both what works with the film and what doesn’t. There is such a range in this film as to its quality, so you can go from being amazing to perplexed within seconds. For example, the practical effects in this film are really good, the explosions have weight to them, and the fire effects work well in tandem with the action. However, the moment the film uses any visual effects it falls apart. It is not an exaggeration when I say that some of the visual effects are so bad that they looked like they were from a late 2000s YouTube video. They are so bad in places that it is actually distracting and pulls you out of the film in an instant. So you have moments where you are having one long tracking shot through a battle, only for it to be interrupted by Leng catching a projectile from an RPG in a mattress spring before directing it elsewhere, it is a moment so bad you expect it to be in the Austen Powers rip off, not in the actual Bond film. As well as this, there were times in my viewing that it looks like the film was dropping frames, creating a jaggy visual, now this might have been the cinema I was seeing it in, but I have never experienced it before. All of this is a real shame because among all this rubbish are some truly fascinating sequences, like the opening underwater fight which is presented in one long take (tracking shot). Now much like films such a Kingsman (review) and Atomic Blonde (review) it’s not a true one take shot, but the cuts are cleverly hidden and it is a wonder to see on screen. Overall the big issue is the film does not take the time to get the details right, maybe it is because they didn’t know what a refugee camp looks like, or how the UN works, or how pirates stop container ships, and the list goes on, or maybe they didn’t think anyone would notice but it takes you out of it.
This juxtaposition of good and bad elements can be found in the story of the film as well, and from here onwards we will be looking at [SPOILERS] so keep that in mind if you have not seen the film. So from the start, we have a relatively straightforward redemption arc, Leng is trying to find a purpose to his life after the military, add to that some extra revenge elements, and you have everything you need for a film. Indeed, some great films have had similar set ups, like John Wick (review) who’s set up was just, you killed my dog now I am going to kill all of you. However, Wolf Warriors’ story meanders all over the place, with what story is there, only being there to service the themes the movie is trying to push. This means the overall plot feels disjointed, which is not helped by the fact that the second act feels incredibly drawn out. To add to this, Rachel (Celina Jade) is the only other character in the film that they bother to give any motivation too. Why are the rebels attacking the government, the movie does not care, why are the mercenaries helping out the rebels, the movie does care, why did the mercenaries turn on the rebels, the movie doesn’t care. This is combined with some of the bad guys being so bad, that they have moved past comically-bad into a new category that I have not seen before. As well as this, quite often the movie needs to move on so it just wraps everything up, and jumps to the next scene even if that means making people act out of character. All of this leads to an overall bland experience, which is a pity because Wu Jing has a lot of charisma, but it feels wasted here.
So as I said Wolf Warriors 2’s story was only there to forward the themes of the film so it’s important we take the time to look at what those themes are, namely China’s role in the world. Now before we start, yes I am well aware that China is not the only country in the world that produces propaganda films, and that this is not the only film from China to tread that ground, for example, Kung Fu Yoga (review). Indeed some of the first feature films that were produced were propaganda pieces like the Battleship Potemkin, which also shows that just because it is a propaganda film doesn’t mean it can also be a phenomenal work of art. Indeed, America has long, long history of producing films like this, see How the West Was Won, The Hurt Locker, Argo, Top Gun, and so much more, like most of the films made during World War Two. Even today, if you see a film featuring the US Military, it is likely that they sought the cooperation of the U.S. Department of Defense, and all the strings that come with that kind of cooperation. But we have to talk about it with regards to Wolf Warrior 2 because it is clear that this film exists for one reason, and that is to forward these themes.
So what is the main theme of Wolf Warrior, well the film puts it as ‘China and Africa are friends’, a phrase that gets used so often that I wished I would have taken a tally of the times it was spoken. But it goes further than that, it feels more like China is Africa’s protector, and only hope for the future, and more so it is a film giving the middle finger to America and trying to capture a new future for China. Once again, there is nothing wrong with that, if you can also create an engaging film, but this is where it doesn’t work for Wolf Warrior. There are a couple of reasons for this, the first is that the film constantly creates disconnects. For example, one of the central themes is how bad capitalists are, we have the property developer, the shop owned that renounced his Chinese citizenship, the mercenaries belong to a mining company, and the manager of the factory to name a few. However, while all this moralising is going on, the film also is full of product placement, and the list of commercial/media partners in the credits is extensive. Also, the film isn’t even subtitle at times at its motivations, sure sometimes it is like ‘oh all the foreign ships have abandoned you, but the Chinese Navy is here’. But in the final showdown between Leng and Big Daddy (Frank Grillo) this exchange happens: Big Daddy a ‘European’ mercenary talking to Leng a Chinese man “You people are inferior” to which Leng reply’s “That’s history” subtitle this film is not. Because of this undercurrent, and the lack of understanding shown about Africa, the film comes off less as an uplifting narrative of China in Africa, but more of a condescending critique. It treats its audience, as well as the people of Africa as children, it almost revels in the slaughter of civilians, Leng leaves people to be slaughtered because it is inconvenient to the plot, indeed when researching this review I struggled to find any of the African actor’s names. The film is more concerned with looking good than actually doing good, and because of this it emotionally falls flat, so when it is trying to have an emotional impact it fails.
So, in the end, do we recommend Wolf Warriors 2, no, and not because it is a Chinese propaganda film. We don’t recommend it because it is not a good film, it is not even a good propaganda film. It is a film that feels like it goes on for ages, but then you realise it is under two hours long, and that is never a good sign. There are so many great films coming out of China and Hong Kong, I’m just afraid that this is not one of them, unfortunately.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Wolf Warriors 2
Directed by – Wu Jing, Celina Jade, Frank Grillo, Hans Zhang, Wu Gang, Yu Qian, Yu Nan, Ding Haifeng, Oleg Prudius, Heidi Moneymaker & Aaron Ly
Written by – Qun Dong, Yan Gao, Yi Liu & Wu Jing
Music by – Joseph Trapanese
Cinematography by – Peter Ngor
Edited by – Ka-Fai Cheung
Starring – Wu Jing
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: na; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: 15; United States: na