A resolutely straight forward military movie wherein any humour is entirely unintentional, Wolf Warriors is a mainland China take on the jingoistic action schlock that Chuck Norris starred in for Cannon Films in the 1980s. With patriotic heroics that recall Invasion U.S.A. (1985) and The Delta Force (1986), not to mention an interchangeable jungle location straight out of Mission in Action (1985), this is a crudely assembled propaganda piece that jettisons credibility early on to celebrate the expertise and considerable resources of China’s armed forces. A long-gestating passion (or vanity) project for star Wu Jing who also serves as director and co-writer, Wolf Warriors literally wears its politics on the sleeve – its soldiers apply “Fight for China” patches on their uniforms before facing the enemy – suggesting that contemporary action may replace historical drama as the genre of choice for instilling nationalistic fervour through popular cinema.
Wu is in one-note action man mode as Sergeant Leng Feng, an expert marksman who resolves a hostage crisis during a raid on a narcotics ring by taking a very risky shot, a judgment call that lands him in confinement despite the successful result of his actions. Offered the chance to get back into the field by officer Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan), the fearless Leng is airlifted to the Southwestern border to join an elite tactical squad known as the Wolf Warriors – in a ridiculous digression, the team actually takes on a pack of wolves, just to prove that they live up to their name. Much of the film focuses on the training exercises that the squad uses to sharpen its skills and there’s some in-house rivalry when the Wolf Warriors find themselves competing against Leng’s former platoon in practice exercises. However, the real challenge is the incursion of foreign mercenaries on the payroll of international crime lord Min Deng (Ni Dahong), who wants revenge for the impediment of his operation in the opening sequence.
With its reliance on frenetic cutting, point of impact close-ups, and cheap CGI blood spurts to add a sense of urgency that is entirely lacking from the threadbare narrative, Wolf Warriors plays like a relic from another era that has been dragged out of a dusty vault and sent for a digital overhaul in the hope of revitalizing its message. Working with the full cooperation of the Nanjing military ensures that Wu has all the latest hardware at his disposal, but his simplistic approach to characterization and the nature of conflict ensure that the result is more sophisticated than the average recruitment video. Still, this transparency proved to be a form of critical bullet-proofing at home as Wolf Warriors delivered surprisingly strong box office numbers despite facing widespread critical derision. As with the aforementioned Cannon fodder, its unabashed tub-thumping – emphasized by lines like, “Those who challenge China’s resolve will have no safe place to hide” – may have incurred the wrath of cosmopolitan critics, but their rejection only spurred audiences looking for 90 minutes worth of national pride to line up for tickets.
Although he sets out to extoll the virtues of teamwork, Wu still puts himself front and center, making the rest of the Wolf Warriors largely indistinguishable. His formidable fighting skills are downplayed, which leaves his super sniper with all the charisma of a state-engineered robot. Yu is reduced to deflecting Wu’s alpha male advances and delivering exposition in the control room, while as remorseless head mercenary Tomcat, martial arts star Scott Adkins is stuck with the kind of brutish bad guy role that usually goes to whichever available foreigner asks for the lowest day rate. Although his dramatic range is limited, Adkins has an affability that serves him well when kicking his way through such DTV fare as El Gringo (2012) and Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013) but his villain here is simply a White Devil hate figure who, in-keeping with the film’s unwavering faith in Chinese machismo, is all too easily dispatched by the hero in a final reel skirmish.
Following their impressive return on investment, it’s hoped that the backers of Wolf Warriors are not tempted to launch a franchise as big screen flag-waving has rarely been so unpleasantly executed.