With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.
Wolf Warrior II (2017)
If you haven’t seen Wolf Warrior II, the massive 2017 Chinese blockbuster, the first thing you might know about it is that it made a ton of money. During its theatrical run, Wolf Warrior II grossed a head-spinning $870 million. Globally speaking, it’s the sixth-highest-grossing movie of 2017 (the top five: Beauty And The Beast, The Fate Of The Furious, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Despicable Me 3, and Spider-Man: Homecoming). Wolf Warrior II made more money than Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, and it did it with only a fraction of the budget of any of those movies. It almost immediately became the highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time, breaking the record set by Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid after just a couple of weeks of release. And Wolf Warrior II earned almost all of its money in Asia; a mostly unheralded limited American release only brought in a couple million. It is a runaway juggernaut of a blockbuster, a movie that heralds a future in which America might no longer be the center of the moviemaking universe.
If you have seen Wolf Warrior II, though, the first thing you know about it might be something totally different. The first thing might be the fact that it opens with an underwater kung-fu fight, one of the weirdest, coolest, showiest blockbuster set pieces I’ve seen in ages. The movie starts with a camera gliding over a placid sunlit river and into an ocean before it lands on a cargo ship under attack. Pirates buzz alongside the ship in speedboats, snaring its propeller in a net and opening fire. Wu Jing, the movie’s star and director, calmly steps off the deck of the ship, dives into the ocean, and shakes the pirates off of one of the boats. The underwater pirates, armed with guns and machetes, come after Wu, but without surfacing to take a breath, he fights all of them off and ties them up with a rope. He then boards the boat, grabs a sniper rifle, and fires a slow-motion CGI bullet at the other pirate boat, where the bullet finds another pirate as he’s getting ready to shoot off a rocket launcher. The rocket veers harmlessly up into the air and then comes down on the camera. Then, and only then, does the movie’s logo hit the screen, making a series of satisfying metal clanking noises.
That scene—all five minutes of it—is made to look like one single, extended shot. It’s not, of course; there’s plenty of computer trickery involved. But the level of craft, choreography, inventiveness, and pure physical abandon is still something special. Wu Jing really did have to jump off the side of a cargo ship to make the scene, and he really did have to fight a bunch of stuntmen underwater. With Wu’s kamikaze physical grace, his willingness to put himself in harm’s way, and his love of sheer absurdist movie spectacle, he’s like some perfect cross between ’90s Jackie Chan and ’00s Tom Cruise. If the technology had been available, the over-the-top Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies of the ’80s would’ve probably had openings like that. But it wasn’t, so that sort of scene works as something altogether new, a final mutation of giddy blockbuster sensationalism. It’s the type of scene to let you know that a movie means business.
Those two things about Wolf Warrior II—its unprecedented blockbuster success and its holy-shit theatrics—are not unrelated. As it turns out, there is a massive global appetite for this sort of explosively populist action fantasia. If you paid attention to American movies in the ’80s, that shouldn’t be a surprise. All throughout that decade, American movies combined flag-waving and explosions, and they did plenty well for themselves. Wolf Warrior II works as a decades-late Chinese answer to movies like Top Gun or Rambo: First Blood Part II. It’s just as overblown in its nationalism; as the movie ends, Wu is posing atop a tank, a Chinese flag billowing from his arm, causing the armies on both sides of an African civil war to lay down their guns and wait for Wu and his Chinese allies to pass through. Plenty of American critics have called Wolf Warrior II propaganda, and it’s clearly and unapologetically that. But it’s also a breathlessly entertaining spectacle. And no American who’s ever enjoyed a Rambo movie can begrudge a Chinese audience that same dumb, giddy pleasure.
The first Wolf Warrior, from 2015, was a relatively small movie about an elite group of Chinese soldiers on a training exercise. Unbeknownst to them, a Chinese drug lord has sent an international crew of mercenaries after them, hoping for revenge after Wu’s character killed one of his associates. Wu directed that one as well, working with the assistance of the Chinese military, which let him use its vehicles and equipment. Scott Adkins, the great British straight-to-DVD action star, played the leader of the mercenaries and got in a good fight with Wu, whose star was still rising at the time. That first Wolf Warrior isn’t a great movie—there’s a lot of hokey melodramatic self-sacrifice and one truly baffling scene with CGI wolves—but there’s something sleek and muscular about it. It’s more efficient and shiny than most Chinese action movies, more like a Hollywood movie. Wolf Warrior II takes that side of the first movie and goes nuts with it.
In Wolf Warrior II, we learn that Leng Feng, Wu Jing’s character, has gone to prison after going into a rage and killing a crooked real estate developer, and he’s lost his fiancée under mysterious circumstances. He’s gone to Africa in part to search for her and in part because he doesn’t know what else to do. Leng Feng isn’t exactly a character; he’s more of an all-purpose awesome-dude ass-kicker. He’s great at soccer and drinking contests and rescuing cute African children from sudden eruptions of violence. (The movie’s treatment of the people of Africa is fucking ridiculous; they’re either bloodthirsty killers or blankly virtuous innocents in need of saving. The jingoism is one more thing that Wolf Warrior II has in common with its American forebears; think of how the Afghani people looked in Rambo III.) Leng Feng seems to be at loose ends, only saving shipping crews from pirate death because he doesn’t know what else to do. But after civil war breaks out in his unnamed adopted nation, he goes into action, heroically volunteering for a one-man mission to save a bunch of Chinese nationals trapped behind enemy lines and coming into conflict with a crew of dangerous mercenaries in the employ of an African rebel leader.
That’s right: more mercenaries! It’s a smart piece of shorthand to make mercenaries the villains of these Wolf Warrior movies; it lets Wu Jing fight Westerners without having to invent a whole circumstance in which China goes to war with the United States. The mercenaries’ leader is one Big Daddy, a sneering hardass played by the great American character actor Frank Grillo. It’s a broadly silly role without any sort of nuance, but Grillo plays it with grit and intensity, and it’s fun to see him in something this goofy. (Other actors in the movie who Westerners might recognize: Celina Jade, the Chinese-American actress who plays the Doctors Without Borders love interest and who’s been Shado in a bunch of episodes of the CW series Arrow; and Oleg Prudius, who plays a hulking Russian mercenary named Great Bear and who used to wrestle in the WWE under the name Vladimir Kozlov.)
Big Daddy’s not any more of a character than Leng Feng is. He’s merely there to embody the movie audience’s idea of American military excess. After Leng Feng flips over Big Daddy’s tank, Big Daddy crawls out of the wreckage and muses, “I guess the Chinese military ain’t as lame as I thought!” But a few minutes later, during his final fight with Leng Feng, he’s sneering, “People like me will always be better than people like you!” (Leng Feng’s retort: turning the fight around and hissing, in Chinese, “That’s fucking history.”) Big Daddy is a stand-in, a cardboard cutout. Meanwhile, the movie depicts China as being an absolute world leader. When every other nation pulls its people out of that war-torn African nation, China sends people in. “You think the American marines are the best in the world?” Leng Feng asks. “That may be true, but where are they now?”
Still, if Wolf Warrior II works as an explicitly pro-China, implicitly anti-U.S. cinematic spectacle, Wu Jing sure enlisted a lot of Americans when he was making it. Stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave choreographed the incredible Atomic Blonde fights, and he’s worked as a double for Chris Evans in the Avengers and Captain America movies. Heidi Moneymaker, a frequent double for Scarlett Johansson, plays the mercenary Athena and gets the best stunt in a movie full of great stunts: an insane leap from an airborne motorcycle onto the roof of a speeding SUV. Composer Joseph Trapanese is the guy who helped Daft Punk score Tron: Legacy and M83 score Oblivion. Wu Jing certainly nods to the Hong Kong action classics, from Shaw Brothers-style wirework to the eternal Chow Yun-Fat shooting-in-slow-motion-while-diving-to-the-side move. But there’s something in the movie’s sense of scale, its energetic hurtling from big set pieces to bigger set pieces, that seems distinctly American.
And so Wolf Warrior II feels like a fitting finale to this column. Action movies are an American art form, one started and developed in this country. They’re also a way of expressing American identity, a prism that we used to work our way through the Vietnam and Reagan eras, to grapple with pride and with shame. But action movies are also a cross-cultural conversation. More than once, the genre has gotten a vital shot in the arm from Hong Kong. This century, many of the best action movies have come from Thailand, South Korea, France, Indonesia, Chile, Japan, and Brazil. The biggest American action star of all time comes from Austria, and the greatest director in the genre’s history comes from Hong Kong. With Wolf Warrior II, we’re entering a new era. This is a time when another country has done the nationalistic ’80s-style bombast opera—the most American of American action movie subgenres—better than America has in at least a generation. Maybe it’s China’s time now. We had a good run.
Other notable 2017 action movies: One of the summer’s surprise hits, Baby Driver turned the existential darkness of Walter Hill’s The Driver into an explosively colorful quasi-musical. Edgar Wright, paying explicit homage to the action canon, spun a fresh and freewheeling take on an old genre, turning his getaway driver into a naïve romantic with an iPod full of great songs. The movie has its problems, and the scenes with Kevin Spacey already haven’t aged well. But its sense of fun and its success are both signs of life. If a movie like this can make money, we’re in a pretty good place.
2017 was the best year for American action movies in a long time. One of the few movies that made more money than Wolf Warrior II was the commendably insane The Fate Of The Furious, with its dreadlocked Charlize Theron and its inexplicable Jason Statham baby-face turn and its nuclear-submarine chase and its beautiful climactic Hard Boiled tribute. And speaking of Theron, she entered rarefied action-star air with the slick, pulsating Atomic Blonde; the movie’s long and grisly hallway fight, made to look like a single take, is one for the ages. John Wick co-director David Leitch gave that movie its punch, and Leitch’s old co-conspirator Chad Stahelski returned to the franchise with John Wick: Chapter 2, a movie I loved as much as the original. Stahelski found ways to extend and explore the crazy mythology of the original while working in grander, even more impressive fight scenes. The bit where Keanu Reeves and Common come crashing through the door of a hotel and then go get a drink together was one of the best things I’ve seen in recent memory.
I tend to think of superhero movies as being in a different category, but Logan effectively bridged the divide and felt like an instant classic; its gruesome carnage gave weight and dimension to a character who always felt like, at least in part, a comic-book version of Clint Eastwood. Kingsman: The Golden Circle was that movie’s opposite in every way except the blood: Giddily nonsensical and drunk on CGI, it gave us the kinda glorious sight of a platform-booted, feather-boa’d Elton John leaping up to spin-kick a henchman. The Great Wall was a grim international failure that attempted to cast Matt Damon as a hero of Chinese antiquity, but the scenes of troops in color-coordinated armor preparing for battle were fun. The Hitman’s Bodyguard and American Assassin were slick, watchable late-summer fare. And with xXx: Return Of Xander Cage, Vin Diesel somehow reanimated his deeply dated early-’00s character, making a piece of fun-as-hell absurdism that brought Asian action stars Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa along for the ride.
Smaller action movies also had a good year. S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl In Cell Block 99 was one of the year’s great surprises: a throwback to ’70s grindhouse cinema that managed to be both meditative and shockingly brutal. I also loved The Foreigner, in which Jackie Chan ditched all the mugging to make a grim, efficient punch-’em-up about, of all possible things, warring factions of Northern Irish separatists. Bushwick had Dave Bautista and a series of long, chaotic takes and a lovably goofy plot about Texan nationalists invading Brooklyn. I’ve heard good things about Sleepless, Jamie Foxx’s remake of a great French thriller, and about Mayhem, in which the employees in an office building suddenly turn on one another. Free Fire, a ’70s period piece about a drug deal gone wrong, had a warehouse full of great actors shooting each other. And the Netflix movies I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore and Wheelman were taut, efficient crime thrillers. The former had a few scenes of inspired bedlam and the Jesus Lizard’s David Yow as a great villain, while the latter got a whole lot of mileage out of a brooding Frank Grillo.
The straight-to-DVD scene was also busy. In the special-effects showcase Beyond Skyline, Grillo teamed up with The Raid’s Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian to fight CGI aliens. Antonio Banderas made the leap into straight-to-DVD stardom with the no-frills Die Hard bite Security and with Acts Of Vengeance, in which he plays a lawyer who takes a vow of silence while on a quest for revenge. And Scott Adkins starred in both Boyka: Undisputed, a welcome return for his great prison-fighter character, and in the gory and exuberant Savage Dog, a period piece set in pre-war Vietnam in which Adkins once again fights his Undisputed III co-star Marko Zaror.
But as always, many of the best movies came from Asia. Blade Of The Immortal, from Japan, was the 100th film from the mad director Takashi Miike, and it was a blood-drenched comic-book samurai tale about a warrior with magical worms in his blood that prevented him from ever being killed. The Villainess, from South Korea, merged a weepy and melodramatic romance story with a great many scenes of virtuosic, all-out violence. And Headshot, from Indonesia, threw injured amnesiac Iko Uwais into a dizzily brutal crime story.
Next time: We’re all caught up! But I’m planning on checking in at the end of every year with another installment, looking back at the previous 12 months in action movies. Meanwhile, come back in two weeks for Age Of Heroes, a new column in which I’ll be looking at the modern history of superhero movies. Usually, I’ll pick a movie from every year, as I’ve done with this column. But to start out, I’ll take a look at the stretch between Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, from 1978, and Tim Burton’s Batman, from 1989.