Weapon buffs and war-game fanboys will get their money’s worth from the orgy of military regalia paraded in “Wolf Warriors,” a bluntly flag-waving film about a People’s Liberation Army elite squad combating foreign invaders. Audiences captivated by the awesome fighting skills of director-star Jacky Wu Jing (who previously helmed and toplined “Legendary Assassin”) will find themselves stumbling into very different terrain from such Hong Kong chopsocky delights as “SPL” and “Fatal Contact.” Still, there’s no shortage of pummeling action to distract them from the crude direction, gag-worthy plot and shoddy 3D conversion. The pic has made a bigger-than-expected incursion into domestic B.O., almost hitting $78 million since its April 2 release; with Arclight Films’ Chinese arm, Easternlight, handling world sales, it should also do well in male-oriented Asian genre niches.
Reportedly a seven-year passion project, this sophomore feature from Beijing national martial-arts champion Wu is a feature-length spinoff of a TV series. Abundantly supported by the Nanjing military, it’s a modernized, gussied-up version of the sort of hawkish propaganda pics churned out by the state-owned August First Studio, epitomized here by a scene in which soldiers stick “Fight for China” patches onto their sleeves before an attack, perhaps in parody of “Delta Force.” The saber-rattling patriotism of the tagline — “You offend China, you have nowhere to hide” — has roused a provincial fanbase. But the film’s inner contradictions — self-inflated pride on one hand, a “white peril” complex on the other — are projected onto the soldiers’ Caucasian enemies, whose rabid contempt for the Chinese alternate awkwardly with praise.
Sgt. Leng Feng (Wu), one of the PLA’s sharpest snipers, is dismissed by Brigadier Gen. Shi Qingsong (Shi Zhaoqi) for risking a hostage’s safety when he shot drug lord Wu Ji (Zhou Xiao’ou) during an operation. Luckily, due to his moxie and defiant nature, he’s recruited by Wolf Warriors, an elite squad whose unconventional tactics are illustrated by Leng’s initiation — in which platoon leader Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan, “Speed Racer,” “The Expendables 2”) subjects him to a lie-detector test using Chinese liquor instead of a polygraph. Leng passes by staying sober enough to chat Long up while confessing to some childhood trauma, and he’s instantly dispatched to join his comrades in a large-scale field exercise at China’s southwestern border.
The simulated battle is between the Wolf Warriors and Leng’s former platoon, commanded by Shi. Past grudges between Leng and Shi, plus the latter’s fresh rivalry with young upstart Long, offer potential for character-driven tension. But that potential goes unrealized by Wu and his three co-writers, who are interested solely in creating a spectacle of military deployment. The soldiers’ firearms offer a veritable alphabet soup of gun models, while a motorcade of tanks and choppers is presented with all the grandstanding of a national parade, in scenes that play out as monotonously as the army drills themselves, weighed down by robotic pacing and rudimentary storytelling.
About midway through, the action picks up with the incursion of foreign mercenaries hired by Min Deng (Ni Dahong), an arms baron based somewhere in the Golden Triangle, to avenge his brother Wu Ji’s death. The leader of the pack is ex-Navy SEAL Tomcat (British actor Scott Edward Adkins), a composite of every short-fused, trigger-happy villain you’ve seen in a Hollywood actioner. This finally allows star-helmer Wu to show off his martial-arts prowess, in scenes that are solidly choreographed by Hong Kong’s Li Chi-chung. Adkins (the “Undisputed” movies), who got his early career break working with top action helmers and choreographers in Hong Kong, synchs seamlessly with Wu in a fist fight more exciting than any of the film’s shootouts or explosions.
To a layperson’s eyes, the military exercise does look authentic, and the cross-country skirmishes are ruggedly watchable on an acrobatic level. Yet it’s impossible to overlook the inanity of the plotting: How, for example, can a foreign contingent enter a strategic outpost (eulogized by Shi as “China’s most sacred soil”) and rig it with land mines and other booby traps right under the PLA’s eyes? Even more laughable is Min’s plan to smuggle blood samples out of China so that Western countries can “manufacture medicine and food products harmful to Chinese health based on their DNA.” Even if it’s meant to deter mainland tourists from stockpiling milk formula and pharmaceutical products abroad, couldn’t Min just obtain DNA samples from the millions of Chinese who live overseas, rather than breaching a militarized zone?
Not as amusing are Leng’s smugly sexist remarks aimed at Long, and her despairing acceptance of his courtship. Wu revels in projecting an image so macho and arrogant it makes the officers of “G.I. Joe” look neutered by comparison. Yu, who delivered such sublime performances for the likes of Wang Quan’an (“Tuya’s Marriage”) Wang Xiaoshui (“In Love We Trust”), and Ning Hao (“No Man’s Land”), is here reduced to a sex object; beneath her tough-minded, independent front, Long does her part to perpetuate the myth that no means yes.
Tech credits are pedestrian, with veteran lenser Peter Ngor charting the characters’ scattergun movements over the expansive but visually drab topography, with little concern for aesthetics. Ace editor Cheung Ka-fai’s crash-bang cutting achieves logic-defying momentum, but the Dolby Atmos sound mix could use further refining. Too many closeup shots jump out in an ugly way in the 3D conversion.