'Wolf Warrior II' Star Frank Grillo on How China's $780M Blockbuster Was Made (Q&A)
The megahit's only American actor discusses becoming an overnight celebrity in the Middle Kingdom, why director Wu Jing is the "next global superstar" and what Hollywood can learn from the film's success.
As Hollywood remains mired in a downturn at the North American box office, Chinese action movie Wolf Warrior II has firmly established itself as the blockbuster phenomenon of the summer.
With a budget of just $30 million, the film opened in China on July 27 and has earned an astonishing $780 million since. That makes it both China's highest-grossing film ever (Stephen Chow's The Mermaid now sits in a distant second at $527 million) and the second-biggest movie of all time in a single market, with only Star Wars: The Force Awakens having earned more from one territory ($936.7 million, North America).
Written by, directed by and starring Chinese martial artist Wu Jing, the film follows a former Chinese special-forces operative as he battles bloodthirsty Western mercenaries to protect Chinese civilians caught up in an African civil war. The central theme of the film — which is often likened to Rambo — is well encapsulated by the strident jingoism of its tagline: "Whoever offends China will be hunted down no matter how far away they are."
Insiders point to two intertwined factors behind Wolf Warrior II's profound resonance with the Chinese audience: Hollywood-caliber action coupled with a story about unrestrained pride in Chinese national identity.
The heavy dose of Hollywood came courtesy of Marvel mainstays Joe and Anthony Russo (co-directors of the Captain America franchise), who consulted on the project via their Chinese studio venture Anthem & Song, which has a strategic partnership with Beijing Culture Media, the film's lead local producer. The Russos arranged for their usual stunt team, led by veteran stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave (The Avengers, Suicide Squad, The Hunger Games), to join the project and elevate its action. They also introduced the American actor who would play the film's villain, Frank Grillo.
Grillo is a familiar face in Hollywood action projects, having played key parts in films like Warrior (2011), The Grey (2011) and the Purge franchise (2014-2016), as well as the villain Brock Rumlow/Crossbones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But his starring role in Wolf Warrior II, which is set to cross $800 million next weekend, will probably come to be viewed as his biggest break to date.
Grillo plays the ruthless American mercenary Big Daddy, who faces off against Wu Jing in a final fight scene that even the film's detractors have tended to praise as simply eye-popping.
"To say that Wu Jing has his thumb on the pulse on what the Chinese people need cinematically is a gross understatement," says Grillo.
THR gave Grillo a call this week to ask him what it was like working on China's biggest movie ever, how it feels to suddenly become an A-list star in the world's most populous nation and why Hollywood should regard Wolf Warrior II as a wake-up call.
How did you originally get involved in this film?
Joe Russo had thrown my name in the hat, and they responded and came to me with this offer. And frankly, I was intrigued because it was Chinese. Everyone in Hollywood is trying to get into the Chinese market, or has tried and failed, or is already in co-productions. I think this is good business. I spoke with Wu Jing and absolutely fell in love with him, and it was a no-brainer. They were generous and terrific to talk to — so that's it, I'm going to China.
What were your expectations going into the project, and what's your reaction to the phenomenon it's become?
I had very low expectations. I had seen the first film, and I thought it was cool in terms of the Chinese cinema I had seen. You know, having been involved in the Marvel world or even the Purge films, the production values are a bit higher on this side. I just thought, if it's a solid success again in China, that will be great. And then this explosion happened. We just surpassed Avatar and we're only behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens as the No. 2 movie in a single market in the history of cinema. So to say that Wu Jing has his thumb on the pulse of what the Chinese people need cinematically is a gross understatement. I'm blown away by it all.
It's always hard to pinpoint precisely why a given movie connects with an audience. But what's your take on why the Chinese have embraced this movie so strongly?
Not to be a jerky overblown actor guy, but I think it goes back to what we do as storytellers — how we continue legacies and pass on our history through storytelling. I think Wu Jing was aware of what he was doing; it's no accident. There's a consciousness that has been developing in China. Maybe it started in 2008 when the country started opening to the world and consumerism became a bigger part of the culture. People say this movie is nationalistic and it's propaganda — and in a sense, it is. But this pride in China is real, and the audience wants to believe that being Chinese means something special. Wu Jing has touched upon something that the world needs to take note of and say, "Wow, this is interesting; this is something important."
Particularly with what's going on in our country, where it's a mess. You can't elect a clown and not expect a circus. I think a lot of Americans are trying to hang onto our own sense of dignity — we're going back to look at videos of John F. Kennedy and trying to understand how to make some sense of what's going on today.
What was your experience like on set, and how did it compare to film shoots in the U.S.?
Well, you know, there are no unions in China, and it's not regulated in the same way movies are in Hollywood. So it was more of an independent feel — run and gun. But what the Russo brothers did was they implemented Sam Hargrave and his team, who are the best in the business in stunts, action and fighting. They elevated all of the action to the level that they're used to, which is the standard of a Marvel movie — and that's the top of the food chain. So it was great for me. I had friends there, and Wu Jing and the Chinese team were fantastic to work with — I had a wonderful experience.
How do you think this film will affect the course of your career, now that you're a recognizable face to hundreds of millions of people in China?
This is the kind of business where a phone call or the right role can change the course of your life. It's not unlike the lottery. I've gotten calls from people saying, "Right now you're bigger than Matt Damon in China." And I'm like, what?! I don't know if it's true, but it's crazy to me that people are even saying it. I'm already in talks with Joe Russo to do something kind of Lethal Weapon-ish with a Chinese superstar. CAA has already put me together with a bunch of Chinese production companies. So, it's absolutely already changed my career. I loved my experience in China, so if my star — whatever it is — has risen to a point that allows me to go and make more movies like this in China, I am in 1,000 percent.
Leading-question alert: In China, local movies have tended to beat Hollywood imports in the comedy and romance genres because Chinese viewers naturally want to see their own language and culture on the screen. But Hollywood has always dominated in the action and effects-heavy tentpole category. Wolf Warrior II is perhaps the first Chinese action flick with Hollywood-level production values — and it has outperformed any Hollywood movie ever there. Should U.S. studios be worried about their competitive edge?
Yeah, I do think they should be concerned. If Chinese studios hire the right experienced people — which their market can support now — Chinese action movies can compete head-to-head with Hollywood at the local box office. This movie shows that.
What should really worry Hollywood is when the next iteration of Chinese films starts showing signs of crossing over. Wolf Warrior II is amazing, and it's done some business overseas, but it's mostly a Chinese film for China. When directors like Joe Russo, who understand story from a very global perspective, start working more and more with Chinese filmmakers, you'll start seeing Chinese films that connect with audiences all over Asia, Europe and South America — maybe even North America. That's what will break China out of the home market and make them a big threat to Hollywood's dominance. (Wolf Warrior II has earned $2.3 million in North America since its release on July 28. U.S. distributor The H Collective says it is planning to expand the release in the coming weeks because of audience curiosity over the film's huge China performance.)
There's obviously tremendous interest in Wu Jing now. What can you tell us about him?
I think he's the next Jackie Chan. He's that guy. He can do anything physical. He's charming, handsome and smart. He understands filmmaking. He's open, collaborative and fun to work with. I think this guy is the next global megastar.
What should people in the U.S. who don't normally watch much Chinese cinema know about this film?
People from around the world who don't live in China and don't take in many Chinese movies — they should just see it. Because a movie that has resonated so deeply in a country of 1.3 billion people needs to be seen. Whether you agree with the politics or not, whether you think it's up to snuff with other action movies or not, it's part of history now. People should see it for themselves and try to understand it.