Wu Jing's epic 'Wolf Warrior 2' came out of nowhere to gross $850 million in one country. Now the action star turned filmmaker has his sights set on Oscar.
More than 150 million people have seen Wu Jing swan-dive off a freighter to take on a gang of pirates in underwater combat, hang from the side of a speeding Jeep in a machine-gun shootout and crash through countless glass windows, but when the star and director of Wolf Warrior 2 enters the lobby of Andaz West Hollywood on this October morning, he's hobbling on a pair of forearm crutches with a brace wrapped around one knee.
"You only saw the thief eating, but you didn't see him getting beat up," he wryly offers in Mandarin. It's a Chinese idiom that basically means no reward comes without hard labor. Applied to Wolf Warrior 2, which at more than $850 million is China's highest-grossing movie of all time — and the country's foreign-language Oscar submission this year — that's a lot of hard labor.
The work began at age 6, when Wu, now 43, was enrolled in a wushu martial arts academy in Beijing. All the first-born sons in his family had trained in such combat, dating all the way back to their service in the Qing dynasty's Eight Banners military, for which they received recognition in the mid-1800s from the Xianfeng Emperor himself, in the form of a plaque that Wu still has today.
Wu didn't dream of such glory for himself. Although he was an athlete on the renowned Beijing Wushu Team, whose alumni include Jet Li and Donnie Yen, "movies seemed too distant," he says. "I simply couldn't imagine it." But legendary martial arts choreographer and filmmaker Yuen Woo-ping could, spotting Wu while scouting for his 1996 Hong Kong movie Tai Chi II. The 21-year-old thought he was going to be a stunt double, but when he got to the set, he discovered he was the lead. "I didn't know how to do stage combat, and the dramatic scenes were terrifying," he says. "It was fun."
But momentum from that big break stalled, and Wu appeared in just two movies over the next eight years. "At that time, the trend in Greater China was androgyny," he says. "My management told me to be refined, to wear very tight clothes, to watch what I say. It's very far from who I am." Finally, he landed a memorable role as one of the featured baddies in 2005's SPL: Kill Zone.
"I believe in Archimedes' saying: 'Give me a lever, and I will move the earth,' " says Wu, who gained traction in the following decade, even earning a supporting actor nomination at Taipei's Golden Horse Awards for playing the villain in 2007's Invisible Target. But a career as heavies opposite Hong Kong's pretty boys wasn't what he really wanted. "I felt like I was in a straitjacket, and I wanted to tear it off," Wu recalls. "I'm the kind of person where the more you push me, the more I rebel."
Wu had a different vision. "If you said 'tough guy' in China, everyone thought of Bruce Willis. Stallone. Schwarzenegger. Tom Cruise," he says. "But why couldn't China have one?" Financiers told him local audiences wouldn't be receptive. "I thought, 'That's a pity, because I happen to be that kind of guy.' "
Wu decided to take matters into his own hands, but no one would invest. His wife, TV host Xie Nan, encouraged him to do whatever it took, even though it meant taking out a second mortgage on his house. "It's OK, I have [my own] small house," she told him. "But if you don't try your best at this, your whole life you'll never be satisfied. So go ahead."
Even after shooting the $12 million Wolf Warrior, about a Chinese special ops soldier (played by Wu) fighting a band of foreign mercenaries hired by a Chinese drug lord, he initially couldn't secure a distributor. Prospective partners told him the movie wouldn't do better than break even. He remembered a lesson from one of his early director mentors: "Learn to do everything yourself. That is your greatest asset. Whether you win or you lose, it's in your own hands."
The 2015 film (not Wu's directorial debut — that was 2008's Legendary Assassin, which Wu calls a "test" of his skills) — surprised insiders by taking in $90 million in China, good enough to get a sequel. Wolf Warrior 2 finds Wu's special ops protagonist now working for hire in Africa (a specific country is never identified) when local rebels and yet another international band of foreign mercenaries threaten the lives of African and Chinese workers in a Chinese-run hospital and then a Chinese-owned factory.
The South Africa shoot was fraught with actual danger: Wu says the district they shot in has an HIV/AIDS transmission rate of 25 percent, and the locals were armed. Blackmail and bribery were rampant, and 22 crewmembers were bitten by spiders. A frenetic Jeep chase scene was filmed in a slum, and the hired 30-man security team warned the crew, "Don't get too close. If you point your camera at them, they'll point an AK at you."
There were 1,700 people on the set of Wolf Warrior 2, comprising nine languages and 26 countries, including the United States: In addition to Frank Grillo as the primary antagonist, Wu tapped Captain America: Civil War's Sam Hargrave to serve as action director and fight coordinator. (They had been referred by Civil War helmers Joe and Anthony Russo, who have been involved in developing Chinese-language movies since early last year. "As Americans working in the China market, you have to be really respectful of their storytelling, because it's different from ours," says Joe Russo. "As a filmmaker, [Wu] puts his body on the line as an action star, so it's visceral and there's authenticity. He's a go-getter and he understands the market.") Wolf Warrior 2's Hollywood-caliber action sequences — which also includes a Fast & Furious-type chase, except with tanks — is considered one of the major reasons behind the movie's record-shattering success.
The other big factor is the film's overt patriotism. But instead of Communist party jingoism, Wolf Warrior 2 positions a Chinese hero, and by extension his nation, as the great protector of the world, and defender of more vulnerable countries. "People say this movie is nationalistic and it's propaganda, and in a sense, it is," Grillo told THR in August. "But this pride in China is real, and the audience wants to believe that being Chinese means something special."
In the last scene of the film, a convoy carrying the multinational band of survivors approaches a war zone, and Wu's hero lifts the Chinese flag aloft as he instructs his fellow passengers to throw off their rifles, and they proceed through the area unaccosted. It's a posture that non-Chinese movie watchers may find familiar — except the usual flag has stars and stripes on it, says Wu. "A lot of people think this is a typical pro-Chinese sovereignty film. American movies can raise the flag, but if my character does it, I'm Red China. Why? There's nothing wrong with loving your country. And Eastern values are universal human values, like equality, freedom and respect for individuals."
With Wolf Warrior 2, Wu may have directed the only non-Hollywood movie to crack the world's 100 highest-grossing movies of all time (it's currently No. 55), but he says he doesn't feel any pressure about the financial performance of a planned third installment: "The business has nothing to do with me. When your goal is not the audience but the money, you've lost." He intends to take a break and recharge (and also, he adds shyly, to have a second child soon — "it's my biggest hope") before seeking to improve on Wolf Warrior's "many insufficiencies," as he puts it.
While Wu won't reveal whether he has specific plans for a Hollywood crossover, during his October visit to Los Angeles he toured the Fox lot and spent an evening getting drunk with Vin Diesel — a massive star in China thanks to the Fast and Furious franchise — with whom he's rumored to be collaborating. "We have something very special coming for you that is rooted in brotherhood, and we're very proud to be able to work with each other," Diesel said alongside a grinning Wu in an Oct. 18 Facebook video. "So the world, I want you to say hello to my friend."
Like many Chinese film insiders, Wu believes that he and his countrymen still have a lot to learn from the vastly more mature American industry. "I came to [L.A.] to learn Hollywood's first-class techniques and talent," he says, admitting that he wouldn't mind attempting someday to make the still-elusive "truly global" Chinese film: "I can't make art films, but everyone understands action movies, which can express Chinese culture and Western culture and promote mutual understanding of our similarities and differences. And to have the audience enjoy it too: That's my mission."
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.