Movie Reviews - 2017 postsSunday November 05, 2017
Movie Review: Never Say Die (2017)
OK, if you’re going to do a male-female body-switch comedy, wouldn’t it be funnier if each gender started as, you know, a typical or extreme version of itself? Like Sofia Vergara and the Rock? So you can play off that once the switch is made?
In “Never Say Die,” the male lead, Ai Disheng (pronounced “Edison,” and played by Allen Ai), supposedly an ultimate fighter with the UFK, is thin, untoned and not particularly macho, while the female lead, Ma Xiao (Ma Li, so outstanding in the 2015 sleeper hit “Goodbye, Mr. Loser”), an award-winning TV reporter, is short, squat, and looks like someone who can throw a punch. She looks like she could take him from the start.
Thus when the switch is made, and he suddenly starts acting feminized, and she’s all tough guy, it’s not ... particularly different. Or logical. Or funny. Although I did laugh when, trying to get something from her boyfriend, he (inner she) resorts to a little sa jiao, freaking the dude out.
And if you’re doing the gender switch then get into it. I.e., What would you want to explore if suddenly you became the other gender? She (inner he) visits the women’s locker room, and of course it’s as sexy as in any teenage boy’s imagination. But what if it weren’t? What if it were boring? I like that they start out enemies—she’s the award-winning reporter that ruined his career three years earlier, while he’s managed by the father she hates—so they each do things to try to ruin the other. He (inner she) runs around the fight ring like a coward; she (inner he) files idiot reports and gets suspended. The former isn’t a bad bit but the latter is either unfunny or doesn’t translate well.
Sadly, per the rom-com rules, they have to fall in love with each other, but how weird is that? You’re falling in love with you. That’s way creepier than the movie lets on.
It all leads to a championship fight. And man does it miss an opportunity there.
The UFK champ is Wu Liang (Xue Haowen), to whom Edison lost the big match three years ago, after which it was revealed—via Ma’s intrepid reporting—that he took money to throw the fight. It ruins Edison’s reputation and his career. Kinda sorta.
There's immediate problems with all that. First, Wu looks like he could take Edison with one punch. In other words, what odds are you getting on Wu to win? Also, Wu turns out to be Ma’s boyfriend. She's exposing the corruption of ... her boyfriend’s opponent? And no one thinks this odd? Does she at least give full disclosure?
It's no surprise that Wu turns out to be our villain: corrupt, manipulative, and cheating on Ma. She finds this out when he brags about it all to Edison, but with her mind/soul inside. More, Edison never threw that fight. He actually won that fight (on points), but the results were skewed by the UFK commission, which is run by Wu’s father. It's a crooked family affair.
All of this leads to a big rematch. But since Edison’s body now houses Ma’s untrained instincts, they have to go to the Buddhist mountains to train. Some of this isn’t bad—particularly when a Buddhist master flies off a balcony, robes fluttering in the Hong Kong movie manner, and stumbles on landing. I also liked the two of them being trained in dexterity by shooting Buddhist fliers into passing cars. But the whole thing isn't far removed from “Rocky IV“ and all the rest. It's ”We're gonna need a montage."
As for the missed opportunity? Ma is now in Edison’s body about to fight the ex-boyfriend who cheated on her. She’s got her inner toughness and his muscles—such as they are. She's the woman scorned with the power to throw a punch. She should be a rage machine. She should slaughter him. But we don’t get a glimmer of that. Instead, in the second round, they switch bodies back again so Edison can be the hero who never says die and wins the championship and gets the girl.
That's what never dies. That storyline.
What Never Dies II
“Never Say Die” was created by the same production company, Happy Mahua Pictures, that made “Goodbye Mr. Loser” two years ago, and the two films share characteristics: low budgets, no stars, an easy route to magic realism. There, he time-traveled by getting drunk; here, they switch bodies when they’re hit by lightning.
Both are also box-office smashes. “Loser” was anything but, becoming the highest-grossing comedy in Chinese history: $226 million. “Die” swamped it: $320 million and counting. So expect more of the same. That's also, sadly, what never dies.
Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)
On September 20, 1973, when I was 10 years old and a few weeks into fifth grade, the media circus/tennis match known as “The Battle of the Sexes,” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, roared into the Houston Astrodome. I have two strong memories about it.
Mostly I remember my mom watching it on the small black-and-white TV we kept in our south Minneapolis basement. I remember being surprised by her intensity. She was usually calm and sweet, but this was something she needed. It made me want to root for Billie Jean. I probably was anyway—Minnesotans are preternaturally inclined to root against the braggart—but this underscored that. I remember her pride when Billie Jean won. It felt like Mom’s victory, too.
A few months later—Nov. 16, according to IMDb—Billie Jean and Bobby appeared on an episode of “The Odd Couple,” which my brother and I watched every Friday night. The commercials promoting the episode gave them equal time but it was mostly Bobby’s show—she simply gets a cameo at the end. Maybe with reason. She was a bit wooden and he was a natural actor. Or ham. He played himself, of course, an old friend of Oscar’s who winds up scamming him out of everything he owns. Felix tries to win it all back, there’s a ping-pong match in which Bobby spots the two of them a 19-0 lead, then psychs them out to take it all. “I feel hot tonight!” Bobby says as he checks to see who has the table reserved next, then tries to leave ... but not before the reservee, Billie Jean, shows up. “Who’d you hustle today, Bobby?” she asks, and he points to Oscar and Felix, chagrined, and wearing their own psych-out garb: the two-headed man; the huge blow-up sandwich-board photo of Billie Jean. After the two tennis stars begin to play, and get a rally going, Felix suddenly tells Oscar, with excitement, “I think we can take them.”
And ... scene.
I was oddly bummed that that “Odd Couple” episode was missing from the movie, “Battle of the Sexes,” starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell. Couldn’t they have run it during the end credits or something? For fun?
But I was more bummed that my mom was missing.
Of sharks and dolphins
“Battle of the Sexes” was written by a Brit, Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours,” “Everest”), and directed by the wife-husband team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”), and it’s a nice movie but oddly insular. It’s too nice. It’s mostly about the lives of the two tennis stars in the year leading up to the match. And mostly about her. And a lot of that is just ... off.
She’s the top women’s player in the world but disrespected by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), recent founder of the Association of Tennis Professionals, so, with her agent, Gladys (Sarah Silverman), she creates the Women’s Tennis Association and goes off on a seemingly perpetual low-budget Virginia Slims tour on the California coast. There, for the first time, she gets involved in a same-sex relationship—with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough)—and deals with its psychic, marital and professional repercussions.
More on that in a second.
He’s a former No. 1 tennis player, now 55, with a rich wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), and a dull office job via his father-in-law. He escapes it, and the wife, by meeting the boys, drinking and betting. His betting here is seen as gambling rather than (as in the day) hustling. It’s good-natured—as he is. He goes to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and gives a carpe diem-ish “life is a gamble” speech. He just wants to have fun. The unstated joke is that the No. 1 male chauvinist pig is basically a henpecked husband.
He isn’t even the villain in the movie! The villain is Kramer, and, more generally, social mores. As a result, you don’t get a sense of all of the women in the world like my mom desperately rooting on Billie Jean. That’s just wrong. Dude played into reactionary, misogynistic forces for money and fame. Riggs was a shark but the movie makes him into a dolphin.
It does something similar to Marilyn Barnett. You certainly get an odd vibe from her. She shows up during the tour like, “Here I am,” and, worse, shows up a half hour before the Riggs match for a haircut and a chat. Really? When Billie Jean is repping her gender in the grudge match of the decade, you take the risk of throwing off her concentration? But their relationship in the movie is still steeped in romanticism. It's positive. Which I get. You can’t make this first lesbian relationship for Ms. King seem “bad.”
But it was. Barnett scared Billie Jean with her controlling ways, then attempted to extort her eight years later. She outed her in the press, and they faced off against each other in court. Billie Jean won that match, too, but you don’t get a glimmer of it here. It’s not even mentioned in a title card. It’s all soft focus. Or no focus.
Jumping the net
Interestingly, Billie Jean’s husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell), may be the most sympathetic person in the mix. Even as he’s getting pushed out of the picture, he always seems to have Billie Jean’s best interests—certainly her best professional interests—at heart. And the moment in the hotel room when he realizes he’s being cuckolded, and maybe all of the suspicions he’s had tumble into place, is heartbreaking.
But this, too, is screwed-up history. Watching, you'd think they divorced that year or the next, but they remained married until 1988. They're still good friends.
After Bobby loses in straight sets, he jumps over the net to congratulate Billie Jean—which is at least something that truly happened. I remember because I remember being incensed. Even as a 10-year-old I knew: “You don’t jump over the net if you lose; that only happens if you win.” It felt like Riggs was taking away some aspect of Billie Jean’s victory. And by portraying Riggs and Barnett in such soft focus, it kind of feels like the movie does the same.
Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
The big reveal in the original “Blade Runner” is that our hero, Deckard (Harrison Ford), who is tasked with hunting down and “retiring” four renegade and superpowerful androids, or replicants, including their charismatic leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), is himself a replicant. We find that out, obliquely, in the movie’s final scene.
The big reveal in “Blade Runner 2049” isn’t that the new blade runner, K (Ryan Gosling), is a replicant, since we get that in the first scene. No, the big reveal—halfway through the film—is that he’s the offspring of Deckard and the beautiful replicant Rachael (Rachel Ward). In other words, he wasn’t formed as an adult in a lab; he came out of a replicant’s womb. In other words, replicants can reproduce.
Then the big reveal is: Naw, that wasn’t him. The true offspring is someone we met in the first act.
The power of the original “Blade Runner” is that the renegade replicants, Nexus-6 models, have a short shelf-life, four years, because their maker, the Tyrell Corporation, and specifically Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), feared that after this period they would develop human emotions and do the awful things humans do. But it's also the point where they develop empathy. You see it in Roy Batty’s eyes and manner as he’s pursuing Deckard in the film’s final scenes. He’s beginning to feel for him. He even saves his life. Then, sitting in the rain, and dying, he says his famous last words, which are like poetry:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost ... in time ... like tears in rain.
Time to die.
So because we fear the worst in us, we kill off our creations just at the point they are revealing the best in us. Nice.
The power of “Blade Runner 2049” is... um...
I first saw the original a few years after it was released, when I was living in Taipei, Taiwan, and it was a vaguely surreal experience: watching a film set in 2019 Los Angeles, where it’s forever rainy, crowded, and Asian neon signs hang everywhere, and going out into the streets of Taipei, where it was rainy, crowded, and neon signs were everywhere.
I wasn’t a huge fan, by the way. It didn’t help that I may have been making out with a girl while watching it so missed clues like the unicorn dream that revealed all. Either way, I didn’t get it. When I watched it again this week, October 2017 (the future!), I liked it a little more, but overall it’s still too atmospheric for my taste. Plus the Deckard/Rachael relationship is ... Hollywoody? Plus the star is a nothing character. Sorry, it’s Rutger Hauer’s show. I did like our evolving feelings about the movie’s villains. They’re terrifying, yes, but also interesting, and finally heroic.
The villains in “Blade Runner 2049”? Just villains.
There’s an unstated joke in the new movie and it goes something like this: About two years after the dystopia of the first film, things got bad. Some event occurred, a virus or something, and all data was lost, and so ... I guess new replicants had to be built? Also nothing could be grown so we’re eating grubs? Also it stopped raining and started snowing.
The new Tyrell is Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who seems more replicant than the replicants in the movie. We see him in darkened room that’s like a sensory deprivation chamber. He’s got that white eyeball Master Po thing going, so I assume he’s blind. Like humanity? He also speaks...slowly and...quietly.
K’s job, like Deckard’s before him, is to retire old-model replicants, and as the movie opens he does this at a California farm. Outside, he discovers a dead tree, and a date carved into it, 6-10-21, that gives him a start. Beneath the tree they discover a box filled with bones: a woman who died in childbirth but had a Caesarean section. Except not a woman, a replicant. Wallace IDs the bones as Rachael’s.
Even as the hunt is on for more clues, the powers-that-be have divergent interests. The police, in the form of K’s boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), want to suppress the info so (I imagine) the few people on Earth don’t freak. Meanwhile, Wallace wants to know how this happened—he figures replicants reproducing will be good for his bottom line—so he dispatches Luv (Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks), all black bangs, impassive face, and occasionally furious eyes, to gather intel and kill people.
The replicants are second-class citizens here, virtual slave labor, avoiding eye contact with humans. At the same time, K is allowed an apartment with a holographic woman, Joi (Ana de Armas), who greets him, nurtures him, etc. The apartment thing is curious, though. Why don’t they just unplug the replicants like with Robocop? Whose need is being met with the apartment? And just what percentage of the population is replicant? If you go by cast, it’s a lot. Mostly, we’re just watching replicants interact with replicants.
In his investigation, K visits an old factory/orphanage, which corresponds exactly to a memory he’s had implanted in him, of running from bullies and hiding a toy wooden horse with the date 6-10-21 carved in the bottom. (That’s why he started earlier.) He finds the toy and takes it to Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), a memory designer, who tells him two things: 1) replicants can’t be given memories from humans; 2) his memories are real. Meaning he’s The One.
Yeah, “The One” again.
Anyway, the horse leads him to the ruins of Vegas, where he fights with, then drinks with, Deckard (Ford, of course), older now, and as embittered as ever. But Luv and her team find them, kidnap Deckard, and leave K for dead. He’s then rescued by the rebellion, who tell him the child born to Deckard and Rachael was a girl. From earlier clues, K surmises it was Dr. Ana Stelline. But why would she implant her memories into him? I still don’t get that part. Also, what is Deckard doing in Vegas? I like the holographic Elvises and such, not to mention his whiskey-drinking dog, but...does he have company? Ever? Is he just waiting for his final act?
In the movie's final act, K kills Luv, rescues Deckard, and reunites father and daughter before dying on the steps outside her institute in the snow—like Cagney in “The Roaring Twenties,“ but without tracing his rise-and-fall arc, and without the pietá.
A lot of people are giving director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival,” “Sicario,” “Incendies”) credit for recreating the artistic, ponderous atmosphere of the first film—but I'm obviously not a fan of that atmosphere. A few times here, waiting for shit to happen, I nearly drifted off. As for the question that began this review? I don’t see any real power to ”Blade Runner 2049." Time to die.
Movie Review: Marshall (2017)
If you’re wondering why it’s Connecticut v. Joseph Spell rather than any number of Thurgood Marshall’s more famous civil rights cases, particularly Brown v. Board of Education, it’s because the film’s screenwriter, Michael Koskoff, is a plaintiff’s attorney from Bridgeport, Conn. A colleague had researched the Spell case extensively and encouraged Koskoff, who had defended a member of the Black Panthers in the early ’70s, and whose family has a performing arts background, to write a screenplay about it. So he did. His son, Jacob, a screenwriter in Hollywood (the Michael Fassbender “Macbeth” movie), helped.
Susan Dunne, at the Hartford Courant, has a great piece on Koskoff here.
I like all of that. I like that a prestigious lawyer wrote a courtroom drama about a sensational-but-forgotten case involving one of the most famous lawyers of the 20th century. I like Chadwick Boseman’s turn as Thurgood Marshall, full of pop and verve and charm, and I like the sense of him as a marshal, a Lone Ranger, going from town to town and righting wrongs. I like the cameo at the end that lets us know the distance we haven’t traveled.
I just wish I’d liked the movie better.
Friedman > Gad
We get too many subplots. Marshall’s wife is pregnant, they hang out with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, then she has a miscarriage. Marshall’s local counsel Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) is a young insurance-defense lawyer who is basically snookered into the case. His wife, Stella (Marina Squerciati), is angry at him for even taking it, but at the local synagogue, piqued by a bigoted friend, she comes around. Then she finds out about her family in Europe. The Holocaust looms. Crazy bigots are on every other street corner, and synchronize attacks on Marshall and Friedman. The lawyers have battle scars. Oh, and one of the jurors has a thing for Friedman.
In reality, Friedman was an attorney in good standing who mostly needed counseling on how to present racial matters, not how to present a criminal-defense case. This description of Friedman by Daniel J. Sharfstein for Legal Affairs in 2005 is way more interesting to me than the movie’s fumbling version:
A few years older than Marshall, Friedman had practiced law with his brother, Irwin, since the 1920s. Unassuming in his dark three-piece suit and matching bow tie, his short black hair neatly combed back, Friedman was developing a reputation as a tenacious advocate with a flair for courtroom drama.
And why didn’t we get this scene?
Bridgeport was not a hospitable city for African-Americans: A 1933 Connecticut law banning discrimination in public places was not enforced. Friedman was allowed to take Marshall to lunch at the Stratfield Hotel restaurant only because he was the hotel’s lawyer.
Spell (Sterling K. Brown, Chris Darden in “The People v. O.J. Simpson) was accused by his employer, prominent socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), of rape and attempted murder, and right from the beginning (not at the end of the second act, as in the movie), Spell tells his lawyers that it was consensual sex. It’s basically he said/she said—but with the “he” black and the “she” white and well-connected. His story has fewer holes but you’re dealing with all-white jury in 1941. So who knows? I like that, too. It’s not super obvious which way the jury will go.
By the time the jury delivered its verdict (not guilty), Marshall, as in real life, had already moved on to another town and another case, but the movie implies that Strubing wanted something from Spell after it was over. Tenderness? Forgiveness? At least publicly, that wasn’t the case. From The New York Times, Feb. 3, 1941:
Mrs. Eleanor Strubing, socially prominent Greenwich (Conn.) woman whose Negro butler was acquitted last week of charges that he attacked her, said today "the verdict leaves the women of America at the mercy of any one who may seek their ruin. ... The law has failed utterly in this case. My indignation is boundless.”
The state’s governor, too, was swamped with mail saying the verdict was “beyond all belief” and “a disgrace to Connecticut,” while the district attorney, Loren Willis (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”), considered an appeal. It was like the O.J. verdict; white people were incensed.
What’s odd and tone-deaf about the movie, particularly in this weekend when Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual harassment is all over the news, is how the defense discredits Strubing’s story. They imply she’s lying because she didn’t go for help; she didn’t scream. It ignores what panic does to people. I felt like I could’ve argued her case better than the D.A.
Overall, “Marshall,” directed by Reginald Hudlin (“House Party,” “The Ladies Man”), is a sleeker, glossier version of history than I like, but the ending, particularly once you know the cameos, is powerful.
Marshall continues on to his next case (in reality Oklahoma, here Mississippi), where, via a bad phone connection, he gets the good news from Friedman. He smiles and leans against the wall ... and into the picture we see a “Whites Only” drinking fountain. I would’ve liked just that, just that reminder, but the movie demands Marshall get all Jane Pittman on us, drinking from the fountain before walking out to meet his new clients in his next civil rights case. Who are they? Parents dealing with the horrors a racist system does to their children. Why is that powerful? They’re played by Trayvon Martin’s parents.
It’s like Marshall has stepped through the past and into our time. It’s like that role, that Lone Ranger role, moving from town to town and trying to extract a small piece of justice, never ends.
Movie Review: Wolf Warrior II (2017)
It’s got a great open. I’ll give it that.
In a single shot, we see Somali pirates attack a freighter, the panicked faces of the crew, and then, moving with grace and purpose, there’s our hero from the first “Wolf Warrior,” Leng Feng (Wu Jing), diving into the water, upending the hijackers’ inflatables and fighting and defeating them underwater before he—and this is still one shot, by the way—pulls himself into one of the remaining inflatables, grabs a rifle and picks off the lead hijacker (who’s aiming at him) with a crack shot from a hundred yards away. Cue credits.
Then it gets stupid fast.
I don’t mind the overt nationalism, the literal flag-waving, the Chinese businessman who dismisses his Chinese citizenship only to cling to Leng Feng and that very citizenship once the bullets start flying.
No, it’s the racism, stupid.
Not your typical travelogue
In case you haven’t been following Chinese box office receipts (most westerners), or reading this blog (ditto +), “Wolf Warrior II” is the movie phenomenon of the year. Last year, Stephen Chow’s “The Mermaid” shattered Chinese box office records by bringing in $526 million, which was a startling, tough-to-beat amount. But this shattered that. In China alone, it grossed $852 million. Add the $20 million it made abroad, and “Wolf Warrior II” is the first Chinese movie—hell, the first non-Hollywood movie—to enter the list of the top 100 movies in terms of worldwide gross. It does for the movie business what Leng Feng does for geopolitics: Makes a stand for China.
The first “Wolf Warrior,” which came out in March 2015 and grossed a respectable-ish $80 mil or so, was all about border security and protecting the homeland. “Don’t even think of going back when you break into China!” Leng tells the movie’s villains. This one is about protecting Chinese nationals abroad. The movie may revel in explosions and violence amid a bloody civil war and an Ebola-like disease in a fictional coastal African nation—things that normally put one off travel—but it ends with a shot of a Chinese passport and this message:
“Citizens of the People’s Republic of China: When you encounter danger in a foreign land, do not give up! Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland.”
China literally means “center country” (jung guo), as in “the center of the world,” and once upon a time it expected the world to come to it. No longer. Its official message now is the message of “Scarface”: The world is yours.
The last time we saw Leng Feng, he was triumphant and chatting up his superior officer/girlfriend, Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan). So what’s he doing alone on a freighter off the African coast? The backstory comes sepia-toned.
- The Wolf Warrior team returns the remains of a fallen comrade to his family, only to find them inches away from death at the hands of a nasty developer—until Leng Feng takes care of that dude. For his troubles, or his temper, he gets three years in prison.
- During his prison stay, his girlfriend is kidnapped and killed by terrorists. The only clue is a specially designed, striated bullet that did the deed. Oddly, it’s undamaged. More oddly, he wears it on a chain around his neck as a talisman.
That’s why Africa. His search for the killer has led him here. Shame. The Chinese don’t do Africa, or black people, particularly well.
In this fictional country, Feng is godfather to a fat African kid, Tundu (Nwachukwu Kennedy Chukwuebuka, making his film debut), who is both li’l rascal (selling bootleg porn), and pudgy comic relief (forever interested in food). When the bullets fly, and Feng goes above and beyond to get him to the safety of a Chinese warship, Tundu runs down the plank crying for him mom, who’s stuck in an inland city. Feng promises to bring her back, setting in motion the rest of the movie. Later, Tundu sees his mom via Skype, and cries. He cries while eating. He’s got a big bounty in front of him, courtesy of the Chinese, and he’s both crying and stuffing his face.
But that’s not close to the worst of it. Here’s the worst of it. More than halfway through, in the quiet after a battle, Feng and He Jianguo (Wu Gang), an old, wise, former career soldier, watch as the Africans celebrate another day of living by lighting a bonfire and dancing. “Our African friends,” says He. “Once they’re around a bonfire, they can’t help themselves.”
While the movie is obtuse in its racism, it’s concise in its anti-Americanism—although with an odd corresponding need for western approval. Sure, the movie’s villain, Big Daddy (Frank Grillo), goes out in a blaze of racist glory (“People like you will always be beaten by people like me” he says to Leng Feng), but first he has to give grudging admiration: “I guess the Chinese military isn’t as lame as I thought,” he sneers. Ditto Leng Feng with the U.S. military. The female lead, feisty American girl Rachel Prescott Smith (Hong Kong actress Celina Jade), mistakenly thinks the U.S. will come to her rescue. “You think the U.S. Marines are the best in the world?” Leng Feng asks her. “They may be, but where are they now?” The point is we lack spirit. We cut and run. China doesn’t. They steam into port while we flee.
Except ... our Marines may be the best in the world? Under the circumstances, that’s kinda sweet.
If you can get past the racism and the geopolitics, “Wolf Warrior II” is your typical action-adventure, with an indestructible hero, near-indestructible villains (including 6’ 6” Ukrainian martial artist Oleg Prudius), and tons of explosions. The spoiled soldier redeems himself while the hectoring middle manager doesn’t. Leng Feng’s original goal—rescuing Tundu’s mom—keeps growing, as he’s responsible for more and more civilians, in worse locations, even as the bad guys close in. Oh, and it turns out Big Daddy is the one who uses striated bullets. Shocker.
Comparisons to mid-80s Stallone are inevitable. Like Rambo in “Rambo II,” Leng fights for his country’s honor abroad; he rectifies past wrongs and imagines future greatness. Like Rocky in “Rocky IV,” he drapes himself in the flag. Leng literally wears it on his sleeve so his rag-tag group of Chinese nationals and African locals can safely drive through a war zone. “Hold your fire!” the African soldiers shout. “It’s the Chinese!”
So what does it all mean? Why did the ultra-patriotic “Wolf Warrior” do meh box office while this one went gangbusters? Because sequels do better than originals? Because “I” was local and “II” international? Because “I” was released when Obama was president and “II” came out during the first hot, idiot summer of Trump?
Maybe the better question is this: When will Chinese movies begin to do better internationally? They’ve already got the production values, the tropes, and the explosions of Hollywood. What’s missing? A white face? But that doesn’t explain the international popularity of stars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Will Smith. Does the movie contain too much nationalism? Or maybe the wrong kind of nationalism? Almost anyone can imagine themselves American, after all, but only the Chinese get to be Chinese.
That’s one of the great ironies about “Wolf Warrior II”: The movie about Chinese power abroad is really only powerful at home. But make no mistake: There’s a lot of power there.