When terrorists overrun an unnamed central Asian nation, capturing Chinese civilians and seizing missiles which they threaten to turn on Beijing, China’s top gun heads straight for the eye of the storm.
“Sit tight!” declares Zhao Yali, a beautiful, fearless fighter pilot, as her made-in-China jet prepares to barrel down the runway towards its next mission. “Rescue number one is ready for take off!”
This is the high-octane world of Sky Hunter, the latest in a series of ferociously patriotic Chinese movies to hit screens at a time when President Xi Jinping has been pushing the idea of a historic revival in China’s fortunes.
The 200 million yuan (£22.5m]) film, billed as “China’s first modern aerial warfare blockbuster”, is due for release on 30 September and promises moviegoers an irresistible cocktail of conflict, courage and celebrity.
One of the world’s best-paid actresses, Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing, has been enlisted to play Zhao, China’s very own Maverick, in this Asian answer to Tom Cruise’s 1986 classic. China’s People’s Liberation Army air force – a co-producer of the film – has also chipped in, lending the production some of its most advanced fighting tools.
Moviegoers will reportedly see Chinese warplanes – including the J-20 stealth fighter – launch audacious forays into enemy skies and engage in spectacular dogfights with French and American jets.
Hellfire and heroism will rain down on those who have dared to challenge China. And China, inevitably, will end up coming out on top.
“It is time for us to use thrilling weapons to make an inspiring movie,” Chen Hao, an air force colonel involved in the film, told the state-run Global Timesnewspaper earlier this month.
Film buffs say it is too early to predict how Sky Hunter will fare at the box office. “I truly don’t know whether it is going to be successful or not,” said Raymond Zhou, one of China’s best-known film writers. “If you just have an imitation of Top Gunthere is no way you can succeed.”
But the film’s producers will hope that – like other recent patriotic hits – it can tap into an apparent surge in national pride under President Xi, who will mark the end of his first five-year term next month with a week-long Communist party extravaganza in Beijing.
Xi has set the world’s number two economy on a global quest for power and prestige since taking power in 2012. After years of suffering, sacrifice and subjugation, it was time for China to “forge ahead like a gigantic ship breaking through strong winds and heavy waves,” he declared in one of his first speeches.
For the first time, Xi has sent combat troops on a UN peacekeeping mission, in South Sudan. He has opened China’s first overseas military base, in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, on 1 August to celebrate the 90th birthday of the People’s Liberation Army.
And he has staged a succession of tub-thumping military parades, in Beijing, Hong Kong and Inner Mongolia. At the most recent, China’s commander-in-chief donned army fatigues and told troops: “Wherever the party points, you shall march!”
Orville Schell, a China expert who has been studying the country since the days of Mao Zedong, said he had been stunned, and troubled, by Xi’s muscle-flexing parades.
“When you see several dots on a page you begin to get a line of trajectory. These things mean something,” he said of the repeated displays of jingoism. “And I think what they mean is that China is back, it is powerful and it is not to be trifled with.”
Nowhere are China’s new muscles more visible than in Wolf Warrior 2, the undisputed torchbearer for this new generation of patriotic action dramas. The 121-minute movie – described by Variety as a “nonstop cavalcade of rough stuff” – has taken more than 5.6bn yuan (£600m) since its release in July, making it China’s highest-grossing film ever. In doing so, it has also sparked what one newspaper called “a fever for military-themed TV and film productions”.
“The box office receipts are … a reflection of the patriotic mood sweeping the country,” the state-run China Daily boasted.
Wolf Warrior 2 tells the story of Leng Feng, a musclebound, child-saving, grenade-lobbing, beer-guzzling, tank-racing Adonis described by critics as a Chinese fusion of Die Hard’s John McClane, Rambo, Jason Bourne and 24’s Jack Bauer.
Leng, a former member of China’s “Wolf Warrior” special forces unit, finds himself flying the Chinese flag in a fictitious and failing African state that is battling a rebel uprising and a mysterious, flesh-eating virus.
His mission, which he accepts without hesitation, is to rescue 47 Chinese hostages and countless African workers from a Chinese factory that is under siege from a coalition of power-hungry rebels and mercenaries whose American leader is called Big Daddy.
The Chinese action hero does so in an impeccably choreographed blaze of geopolitics-infused glory. “People like you will always be inferior to people like me … Get fucking used to it,” the American soldier of fortune tells Leng during one of the film’s final blood-soaked battle scenes, as he prepares to puncture the Chinese hero’s throat with a razor-sharp knuckleduster.
But Leng, having already shaken off a bout of the apparently incurable disease, beats his assailant to the ground and kills him instead. “That’s fucking history,” Leng replies.
Jonathan Papish, an industry expert from China Film Insider, said patriotic movies were nothing new in China: studios had been churning out so-called “main melody films” ever since Mao seized power in 1949.
But the chest-thumping patriotism on show in Wolf Warrior 2 was “definitely a product of Xi’s reign and the idea of the rejuvenation”.
“It is a China that won’t take shit from other countries, that won’t be bullied,” he said. “It’s the mentality that the 100 years of oppression from foreign powers is over and we are now in a phase where China can stand on its own feet and defend itself and its citizens. The general population … is very proud of the role that China can play now.”
Zhou, the Chinese critic, agreed the blockbuster had surfed a wave of patriotism to box office success. “Of course, the big geopolitical picture of China’s rise … definitely helped the film,” he said. “The movie skyrocketed because it has this patriotic message.”
But national pride was not the only explanation. “There are tons and tons of patriotic movies in China that have done abysmally at the box office,” Zhou pointed out.
Instead, Zhou attributed the success of Wolf Warrior 2 and another recent hit called Operation Mekong to a 21st century Chinese thirst for entertainment. “[Chinese people] are exhausted after a day’s work. They have a lot of pressure in life. So when they go to the cinema they say: ‘We don’t want a history lesson. We don’t want an experience that is similar to sitting in a classroom. We don’t want to be educated. We just want to be entertained.’ At this stage of economic development it’s quite understandable.”
There is certainly little educational about Wolf Warrior 2. With its giraffes, lions, rebel fighters and mass graves, it offers as hackneyed a vision of Africa as any to emerge from Hollywood.
“Africa,” muses Leng. “Great food. Nice scenery. Hot women.”
Ultimately, though, the film is about China, and its growing might, not Africa. When Big Daddy attacks the Chinese factory, General Aotu, the rebel chief, reprimands him. “I told you so many fucking times that we cannot kill the Chinese,” he rages. “China is a permanent member of the UN security council and I need them on my side if I am to take political power.”
Big Daddy is unimpressed. He stabs him in the throat. But before long, China returns to save the day. People’s Liberation Army warships annihilate the mercenaries with a barrage of guided missiles. With the coast clear, China’s Rambo leads a convoy of grateful African women and children and Chinese factory workers to safety, China’s red flag wrapped around his arm. A smiling African child places a mint in Leng’s mouth as they flee.
Sceptics have dismissed Wolf Warrior 2 as thinly veiled propaganda for Xi Jinping and his “China dream”.
But the film-makers behind this new wave of patriotic films insist they are following a well-trodden path. “America makes movies that promote the American spirit,” Wu Jing, the director-cum-actor who plays Leng Feng, told reporters. “Why can’t I do that for China?”
By Tom Phillips
Additional reporting by Wang Zhen