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The Wolf Warriors Films: A Single Spark. A Prairie Fire?

The Wolf Warriors Films: A Single Spark. A Prairie Fire?

Post Series: 2018: Volume 17, Number 2
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Wu Jing, 44, the director and action star of Wolf Warriors (2015) and Wolf Warriors II (2017), did not set out to make China’s highest-grossing film in history. He reportedly had to take out a second mortgage on his apartment to produce the first Wolf Warriors film. His foremost concern was “Why couldn’t China have one?” One being a “tough guy” on the big screen. As tough as Bruce Willis, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, or Tom Cruise.1 A tough guy with a Chinese face.

Leng Feng, the Chinese special ops soldier played by Wu, has since become China’s new favorite action hero. Leng follows his own honor code, gulps maotai liquor, flirts with his boss, and leaves behind piles of enemy bodies. The enemies are merciless drug dealers plaguing China’s southern border, pirates at sea, foreign mercenaries, and African insurgents. But Leng is always smarter. He is also cooler, dodging kicks, arrows, bullets, grenades, and tanks. And he magically recovers from an Ebola-like virus overnight, becoming fit to fight again.

Chinese audiences have fervently embraced these two thrilling action flicks. If Leng’s heroism appears too clichéd and implausible, the director and star suggested, one should blame Hollywood. “In Hollywood, the hero can take on a whole army. Why can’t my character take on a dozen mercenaries?” Wu said in an interview with NPR.2 On his controversial use of the Chinese national flag in Wolf Warriors II, he argued, “American movies can raise the flag, but if my character does it, I’m Red China. Why?”3Wolf Warriors II was China’s official submission to the Academy Awards in 2017. It is deeply ironic that a Chinese variation of the white savior trope was sent to Hollywood for approval. In Wu’s version, the hero single-handedly saves Chinese and African civilians as well as a Chinese-speaking American woman in a fictional African country plagued by an epidemic and a civil war.

Wu’s movies are neither subtle nor apologetic in expressing patriotism. The ancient Chinese phrase “Whoever offends China will be wiped out no matter how far away” is articulated several times, conveying an increased level of confidence in China’s military prowess. One of the last utterances of Leng’s nemesis (played by Scott Adkins) in Wolf Warriors is: “The Chinese army is not as lame as I have thought.” In Wolf Warriors II, Big Daddy (played by Frank Grillo) dies only after Leng reclaims agency in history. “People like you will always be beaten by people like me. Get used to it. Get fucking used to it!” Big Daddy hollers, pressing a sharp dagger on Leng’s throat. A furious Leng lunges back, grabs the dagger, and kills Big Daddy in a frenzy of stabs, before he has the final words, “That’s fucking history!”

For decades the patriotic feelings expressed in Chinese cinema have taken on the forms of victimhood and anxiety. The humiliation of the Opium Wars in the 1840s has been imprinted in the Chinese public mentality. Many films portray Japan’s brutal occupation of China during WWII. The legitimacy of the Chinese government partly depends upon fomenting this type of resentment. The Wolf Warriors films, refreshingly, capture “a new, muscular iteration of China’s self-narrative.”4 The films construct China as not only militarily capable but also diplomatically prevailing. “Stand down! We are Chinese! China and Africa are friends!” China’s ambassador to the African country where Wolf Warriors II takes place calmly declares to a crowd of red-scarfed rebels pointing guns at them. The crowd then reluctantly retreats. “China is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and I need them on my side if I’m to take political power,” the rebel leader cries later on in the film, scolding his mercenaries for having killed a Chinese doctor in a China-bonded hospital in his country. Plenty of dialogue in the films evokes the feeling of being given a lecture about China’s greatness.

“China has never seen such a moment, when its pursuit of a larger role in the world coincides with America’s pursuit of a smaller one,” New Yorker writer Evan Osnos points out in explaining why some Chinese audiences gave Wolf Warriors II standing ovations and sang the national anthem after the screenings.5Rachel, the Chinese-speaking doctor whom Leng rescues in Wolf Warriors II, tries to call the U.S. consulate for help after bloodthirsty rebels have occupied the hospital. “We are sorry. We are currently closed!” is the voice message she receives. To Osnos, it is not coincidental that the films became a hit in China during an age of “America First,” when Trump withdrew from the TPP and reduced U.S. contributions to the U.N. while China’s Belt and Road initiative has expanded the country’s global impact to an unprecedented extent. With a fatter budget, Wolf Warriors II drives home its thinly disguised political message even more effectively in a new-colonial context. The film prominently sentimentalizes China’s economic and humanitarian presence in Africa while, as some have critiqued, portraying  African lives as disposable through numerous sensational scenes of massacre and epidemic outbreak against the exotic African landscape. An African boy called Tundu, Leng’s godson, begs Leng to rescue his mother, who is stuck in a China-sponsored factory taken over by rebels. Leng promises to get her back safely in 18 hours. Leng has to complete the mission alone because the Chinese Navy has to get U.N. approval before they can take action. The message is clear. China is a powerful player that strictly abides by international law and executes only perfectly moral actions. A Chinese viewer’s words best summarize the intended response: “It feels good to be on the side of justice.”6

The hybrid of Rambo-style heroism, John Woo-style sentimental violence, and Chinese mainstream-style nationalism reaches its peak at the end of Wolf Warriors II. Leng wraps a Chinese flag around his arms and leads wounded Chinese and African citizens through an active war zone. The film closes with the shot of a Chinese passport, poignantly captioned with the announcement, “To the citizens of the People’s Republic of China: When you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, never give up hope. China’s strength will always support you.”

“The patriotic kindling in people’s hearts has been dried as far as it can be, and I, Wu Jing, have taken a small match or spark and dropped it on, lighting up all of you,” the director said in an interview with a Chinese website.7 The metaphor of a single spark igniting a prairie fire dates back to a Confucian classic but has been most widely known through Mao’s letter in 1930 intending to boost the morale of the Red Army.

The Wolf Warriors films have provided a model to combine patriotic spectacle and box office miracle. The first movie cost $12 million and took in $90 million in China. The second, with a worldwide gross of more than $870 million, is not only China’s highest-earning film but also the “only non-Hollywood movie to crack the world’s 100 highest-grossing movies of all time.”8For decades many Chinese audiences, the movie market on track to be the world’s largest, have preferred Hollywood over domestic productions. Thanks to Wolf Warriors II, domestic films “for the first time prevailed over foreign imports in terms of combined box-office receipts,” reaching almost 55 percent of the total gross in 2017.9

Having risen to be a superstar, Wu has gained the political capital to build his Wolf Warriors franchise. Chinese government-sponsored cultural offices, film associations, and film research institutions have hosted symposiums to study Wu’s success, in the hope of replicating the box office miracle, using films to promote the “Chinese Dream,” and boosting China’s global soft power. More than 500 reports, interviews, essays, and articles on the films have been published in China. Collaboration between film producers and military bases—the first Wolf Warriors film was sponsored by the Nanjing Military Base, where Wu shadowed for 18 months—has been identified as a new model of producing breathtaking blockbusters with military themes.10 It is reported that the script of Wolf Warriors III has been submitted for approval.

Can the Wolf Warriors films be considered “a turning point for China’s movies to go global?”11 While Wolf Warriors II ticket sales were overwhelmingly from China and overseas Chinese communities, Wu does not reject the idea of making films for global audiences. Wolf Warriors II employed prominent Hollywood talent, including Joe and Anthony Russo as consultants, Sam Hargrave (“Captain America: Civil War”) as stunt director, and Joseph Trapanese (“Tron: Legacy”) as composer.12 “As Americans working in the China market, you have to be really respectful of their storytelling,” Joe Russo said.13 Evidently Wu knows how to make his Chinese audiences “feel good.” And he believes action movies can transcend linguistic and cultural barriers and become universally appealing. In October 2017, Wu met Vin Diesel (“Fast and Furious”) who later uploaded a Facebook video with himself beside Wu. “So the world, I want you to say hello to my friend,” Diesel wrote.14 To really be a friend, Wu will have to work hard to make his Western audiences “feel good” too. The practical question is whether he can actually do so without losing his Chinese base in the era of tariffs and threatened trade wars. The existential question is whether he is still himself if he makes Western audiences feel good.

  1. Rebecca Sun, “Meet China’s New King of the Global Box Office.” Hollywood Reporter, vol. 423, no. 38, 06 Dec. 2017, 78-79.
  2. Anthony Kuhn, “Chinese Blockbuster ‘Wolf Warrior II’ Mixes Jingoism with Hollywood Heroism.” All Things Considered. Aug. 10, 2017. Url: https://www.npr.org/2017/08/10/542663769/chinese-blockbuster-wolf-warrior-ii-mixes-jingoism-with-hollywood-heroism. Accessed May 12, 2018.
  3. Rebecca Sun, ibid.
  4. Evan Osnos, “”Making China Great Again.” New Yorker, vol. 93, no. 43, 08 Jan. 2018, 36-45.
  5. Evan Osnos, ibid.
  6. Chris Buckley, “A Chinese Hero Beats Records (and Westerners).” The New York Times, Aug. 17, 2017.
  7. Chris Buckley, ibid.
  8. Rebecca Sun, ibid.
  9. Thomas Schmid, “ASIA.” Film Journal International, vol. 121, no. 2, Feb. 2018, 56.
  10. Meng Lijing 蒙麗靜. “Chinese Film of Military Theme in the Blockbuster Era: Symposium Overview on Wolf Warriors” (走向大片時代的軍事題材影片: 電影<<戰狼>>討論會綜述). Contemporary Cinema (當代電影), Jun. 1, 2015. 191-193.
  11. Li Nan, “Going Global: How Long Does It Take to Project Chinese Films onto the International Screen?” Beijing Review, Sept. 21, 2017, 42-43.
  12. Patrick Frater, “China Mega hit Sparks Rethink Among Studios.” Variety, Aug. 29, 2017, 16.
  13. Rebecca Sun, ibid.
  14. Rebecca Sun, ibid.
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