Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Wolf Warriors 1 & 2

Not quite a "you've got to get yourself off Fantasia slowly" night; I went from one Asian action movie on Sunday to two on Monday, so it would be going in the wrong direction. No, I was planning on giving Wolf Warrior 2 a pass because Fantasia did have me worn out and, besides, in its second week in Boston it was playing at off-hours. But then I caught a news item saying that this was a massive hit in China, set to break box office records set by The Mermaid, and that demands a bit of attention. And since the only screenings left this week were at 9:40pm, that meant there was time to stream the first one before getting on the T for Boston Common.

Neither, it turns out, is really great, although there is marked improvement between the first and second that's not entirely about how watching a movie on the big screen is an order of magnitude or three better than doing so at home. Wu Jing should probably not be writing his own material yet, but he's showing a little room to play in more than one mode here, and a little more potential as an actor, although he's got a way to go to be in the same category as the other martial arts superstars who got to build their careers in Hong Kong (Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen), and I don't know if he can necessarily get there by writing and directing himself. He's still pretty raw.

On the other hand, the $200M or so this will make in China is a pretty great argument for other people there (and internationally) starting to see Wu as a genuine leading man rather than a henchman who gives Donnie Yen a run for his money, and given that I've written a number of reviews talking about how that's a hurdle he hasn't quite seemed able to clear, that's pretty good to see.

And, hey, maybe it will start a chain reaction, as this film is the third time I've seen stuntwoman Heidi Moneymaker in a role of her own rather than doubling for someone else in the past year (roughly), and it sure seems like putting her in a well-made action movie would show she's well-named.

Zhan Lang (Wolf Warrior

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 August 2017 in Jay's Living Room (catch-up, Amazon Video)

Western movies like Wolf Warrior used to crowd direct-to-video racks, promising heroic soldiers fighting evil foreigners with much less nuance than flag-waving, and probably still do once you scroll past the bigger-studio options on a VOD menu (heck, there's a mini-industry of direct-to-video sequels to more ambitious war movies). The main difference an American will see for much of the running time here are that the flag is different and the mercenaries speak English; it's still a dead-simple plot that involves a lot of concealing oneself outside, a command center, and some pyro effects.

The difference is, it stars Wu Jing as the headstrong-but-always-right special forces guy and Scott Adkins as the chief merc, which means that at some point toward the end, these two are going to run out of ammo and start punching and kicking each other, and that scene is worth a rental fee. It's not the most creative or exhilarating fight scene either has been part of, but these guys are good at that part of the job, and as the film plays out, each one's action scenes serves to whet the appetite for the final confrontation. It's enjoyable enough to watch them get put through their paces even if the result is an utterly foregone conclusion.

The story itself is thin as heck but has a potentially fun kernel at its center: Strip away all of the getting there and the truly goofy macguffin revealed toward the end, and you've got the Wolf Warrior squad in the middle of a training exercise - and thus without live ammunition - suddenly having to face down a group of well-armed mostly-foreign mercenaries who are supposedly hunting down Wu's Leng Feng as revenge for the incident where he disobeyed orders and as a result got promoted to the team (yes, there's some severe cognitive dissonance about Feng needing to learn to be part of a team even though every big action sequence rests on him being super-awesome individually going on). That's a good action-movie engine, but Wu and his co-writers can't make it stand, switching things up a couple times in the second half and unsuccessfully trying to give Feng subplots involving his late father and being attracted to his commanding officer.

Full review on EFC.

Zhan Lang II (Wolf Warrior 2)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2017 in AMC Boston Common #16 (first-run, DCP)

Wolf Warrior 2 may not exactly be a great action movie, but it's bigger and better than its predecessor in just about every way possible aside from the villain, and the deficiency there is more a matter of hand-to-hand combat skills than screen presence. Like the first, this is some clear, unvarnished Chinese nationalism, but it's at least creative enough in its action to be enjoyable if that's not your particular form of patriotism.

Though Feng Leng's headstrong ways got him assigned to China's elite "Wolf Warrior" squadron at the start of the first film, they also get him cashiered when he goes more than a little overboard dealing with a group of greedy developers trying to tear down the home of a fallen comrade; at about the same time, his former commanding officer and fiancee Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan) is lost on a mission to the border. Three years later, he's working in the merchant marine in Africa, foiling pirates but also making friends with the locals while also trying to uncover the mystery of a distinctive bullet found at the site of Xiaoyun's last mission and linked to this portion of the world. That's a hard enough quest as it is, and then the country erupts into civil war with the insurgents also having a team of military contractors led by "Big Daddy" (Frank Grillo) on the payroll, and while China is able to evacuate many of its citizens from the capital, renowned research scientist Dr. Chen is at an isolated research hospital while forty-three Chinese citizens are at a factory. The People's Republic can't just send the army in after them, but a discharged special forces guy like Feng (Wu Jing)

The original Wolf Warrior didn't have nearly as much going on plotwise, and Feng didn't truly stick out of a cast full of best-of-the-best special forces types. Getting Wu Jing's Feng Leng out of the military frees him up to have a little more personality, and puts him in a generally more interesting group. Wu hasn't yet become a good enough actor that one can enjoy the scenes between fights like Donnie Yen or Jet Li did, but he's an amiable enough screen presence as Feng, and he's got a more interesting crew to play off: He's got more chemistry with Celina Jade's energetic Dr. Rachel Smith than he did with Xiaoyun in the first one (and, admittedly, more opportunity for it to come out), for instance, and the factory gives him a chance to play off both Wu Gang's veteran security chief and Zhang Han as a rich-kid military enthusiast. It's fun to watch him play off Nwachukwu Kennedy Chukwuebuka as an African "godson" who follows him around.

Full review on EFC.

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