Wu Jing’s second film as a director after 2008’s Legendary Assassin, which he co-directed with his martial arts choreographer of choice Nicky Li Chung Chi, Wolf Warrior is also his first lead role in the seven years since that film’s release, and the first time he co-wrote a film. He plays Leng Feng, a sniper who is expelled from the army after he solved a hostage crisis by ignoring orders and shooting down the hostage-taker with a hazardous maneuver. While in confinement, he is approached by officer Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan) with an offer to join an elite tactical team known as the Wolf Warriors. He accepts, and soon he’s in the forest with his new team for a field exercise. But things take a tragic and dangerous turn when they run afoul of a team of foreign mercenaries headed by Tomcat (Scott Adkins) and hired by an international criminal (Ni Dahong) seeking revenge for the death of his brother, who is none other than the hostage-taker killed by Leng Feng. While supervised by Long Xiaoyun from a control room, Leng and two of his comrades must retaliate for the death of one of the Wolf Warriors, and prevent the team from crossing the Chinese border again.
The most striking thing about Wolf Warrior, is how patriotic it is. It follows the tropes of an eighties Chuck Norris film almost to the letter, coming off as literally the modern Chinese equivalent (how ironic is that) of a Delta Force or a Missing in Action. While Wu Jing’s lithe and smiling persona could not be further removed from the mighty Chuck’s granite beardedness, his character presents the same combination of intense patriotism and unique skill, in that special way that makes him too good for the regular army but perfect for an elite team, inside of which he will still need to occasionally go solo anyway. Beyond the lead character, the film makes a point of doubling as propaganda anytime it can. Lines like “Whoever dares to breach into Chinese territory will regret it dearly” are repeated an almost uncomfortable number of times, Yu Nan’s gorgeous and steely officer is mostly seen against the backdrop of a giant People’s Republic of China flag, a third of the film is taken up by impressive displays of military deployment and hardware, and there’s an almost surreal degree of levity in the troops, to the point that you’d be forgiven at times for thinking you’ve stumbled upon an army recruiting promo. And a “suiting-up” scene actually remakes a passage from Menahem Golan’s Delta Force by showing soldiers grafting on Chinese flag badges to their uniform for a good two minutes.
That exacerbated patriotism has led some to speculate that the film’s success was artificially bolstered by the government, which among other measures may have made it compulsory for members of its army (the People’s Liberation Army) to go see the film. That’s millions of active and reserve personnel. Whether or not this is true, it’s difficult to imagine Wolf Warrior becoming a hit in other parts of the world, for beyond the patriotism that may have struck a chord with audiences (especially in smaller cities and rural areas, according to tracking), it is far from a satisfying action film. For much of it running time, Wu Jing’s film is surprisingly low on the kind of fireworks that, considering its paper-thin and often puerile plot (a weird, under-developped subplot concerns the bad guy’s attempt at securing a genetic weapon that can specifically wipe out Chinese people), would have been its raison d’être, or at least its saving grace. A lot of time is spent on deployment of troops and vehicles, on weak banter among the men, and on heavy-handed flirting by radio between Wu Jing and Yu Nan’s characters. There’s also a slightly puzzling scuffle against a pack of actual (well, actual CGI) wolves that look good in close-up but not in movement. When the plot finally gathers some urgency, there are only 25 minutes left, and while they feature some reasonably exciting forest warfare and vehicular destruction (Nicky Li Chung Chi directs the action), it’s too little, too late. And even then, Wu Jing makes the puzzling decision to include thudding flashbacks to something that happened to Leng Feng’s father (flashbacks to something Leng Feng didn’t actually witness, by the way), to add poignancy to a scene of rescue.
Luckily, the acting is as good as can be expected in such a crudely-written film. Wu Jing has always been adept at imbuing even the most kick-ass of characters with a sense of sweetness. A scene where he’s hanging from a helicopter and just revels in the experience with boyish glee, and the constant sense of humor Leng Feng exhibits, make him a character worthy of a better film. Yu Nan is mostly stuck to a control room and disappointingly doesn’t get in on the action, but her steely charisma and solid chemistry with Wu Jing are some of the film’s pleasures. Ni Dahong has fun in a limited villainous role, lighting cigars whether everything is exploding around him or he’s pinned down under Wu Jing’s boot. The presence of Scott Adkins as the immediate bad guy is a nice change of pace from all the horrible Gweilo actors playing villains in Chinese/Hong Kong productions. Though Adkins’ character has no dimension at all beyond his skills, the British actor’s charisma and usual athleticism are welcome, as is his laudable restraint, compared to recent performances like the late Darren Shahlavi in Ip Man 2. His final fight against Wu Jing is passable, but a fairly short knife fight is not what one would expect of a match-up between two of the best martial arts actor working today.
Long Story Short : Disappointingly, Wolf Warrior features more propaganda than action. Crudely plotted and often repetitive, it gets by mostly on its appealing cast. **