Every time there’s a new Zhang Jin/Max Zhang film I get somewhat excited. For years he has been impressing me with his extreme martial arts skills, with his quality supporting turns in the likes of Kill Zone 2 (2015) and Ip Man 3 (2015) showing he had the talent to be a major star.
With leading roles in the excellent The Brink (2017) as well as Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy (2018) I certainly thought he was on his way to become a major star, especially as he started to show up in Hollywood productions like Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) and Escape Plan: The Extractors (2019) even if they didn’t use him to their advantage.
Unfortunately, he still hasn’t reached the upper echelons of martial arts stars such as Donnie Yen or Scott Adkins. This could be partly due to him not getting the same quality of roles. One of his more recent solo starring efforts, The Invincible Dragon (2019), had the potential to be a quality actioner, with him collaborating with notable director Fruit Chan. Sadly the final film turned out to be extremely disappointing, with it easily being the poorest work to come from the celebrated Chan, even though Zhang did his best in the lead role.
I hoped that Zhang would be back on safer territory with the announcement of his most recent actioner Wolf Pack. The film opens with Aarif Lee’s young physician being kidnapped by a team of mercenaries led by Zhang. Lee has been traveling the world for years looking for answers about the death of his father, answers which Zhang may know the answer to.
Zhang agrees to tell Lee the truth if he accompanies him and his team to complete their mission. Their mission uncovers a conspiracy where a group of terrorists are planning to detonate a bomb which would destroy a natural gas pipeline. The heroes must put their differences aside before it’s too late to stop them.
In theory, Wolf Pack has everything you need to make a quality action movie, with a great leading man, a solid supporting cast and a decent size budget. However, the film doesn’t fully come together to make a satisfying whole, with the majority of the film feeling as if something is lacking.
It is hard to pinpoint what this actually is, as the film does contain some quality action scenes, but they do feel as if they are slightly lacking in energy, especially when put up against other Chinese produced actioners. It doesn’t help that the film is given the most basic of plots, with the characters involved being so thin in character that they are almost boiled down to a type i.e. the silent one, the friendly one etc.
Now some action films are able to overcome this. Only recently I viewed Hansan: Rising Dragon which doesn’t exactly go deep with character development, but there was so much going on you felt you got to know the characters as the film progressed, seeing how they acted in battle. Wolf Pack however doesn’t follow suit, with each member of the Wolf Pack being almost interchangeable other than the odd small character trait previously mentioned.
Of course, Max Zhang manages to stand out amongst them, based solely on his charisma. He is clearly the star of the film even if he isn’t given as much screen time as expected. Martial Arts fans will be sorely disappointed in the lack of actual fight scenes throughout the film, with Zhang only engaging in one short lived fight scene during the finale, where he faces off against main villain Diego Dati.
Similarly, Luxia Jiang who has proven to be quite the martial artist in such films as Bad Blood (2010) and Naked Soldier (2012) is short changed. Even if those films mentioned weren’t that great, they at least gave Jiang a chance to show off her fighting skills. Here, like Zhang, she only really takes part in one proper fight scene, again during the finale. Like Zhang’s fight, it is reasonably well choreographed but it is all too short and leaves you wanting more.
Surprisingly, In terms of character with any type of development or arc is Aarif Lee’s doctor, who initially isn’t even a member of the team. His main reason for joining is to uncover the truth of his father. Even so, he eventually ends up devolving into just another gun toting action hero by the end of the film.
During the first half of the film Lee’s character clearly has serious reservations of how Zhang leads the team, but these are quickly put aside come the finale. Also, much is made of the mystery surrounding Lee’s father, that I was expecting a serious revelation, but when the truth is finally revealed it is something of an anticlimax. It just seemed to be a lot of build up for such little pay off.
There are flashback scenes included, where it is alluded to that his father’s remains weren’t fully recovered, which incorrectly led me to believe that this would have some bearing on the plot, but it would seem that I was maybe putting more thought into the plot than the scriptwriters. Other flashback scenes are included during the film but are rather pointless and do nothing but slow down the momentum of the film. There is no need to include flashbacks to scenes that only happened 20 minutes before, especially when you also have a character narrating what is happening on screen.
Considering his back catalogue, I think it’s reasonable to say that Aarif Lee wouldn’t be considered as one of China’s finest actors. His character here does slightly grate on the nose, with him coming across as quite self righteous. He does become more bearable as the film progresses, and outside of the drama he certainly handles himself well during his action scenes, showing off his agility in what is the film’s best action scene, a one take shootout come chase where Lee goes after Dati’s villain. However, like much of the action in Wolf Pack, it comes to an end just as it’s building up steam.
In regards to the action, it is all competently staged, but it is lacking that wow factor a film like this needs to set it apart from the crowd. One of my issues with the action was the fact that it features two exceptional martial artists but doesn’t really let them unleash their skills, with most of the action favoring gunplay. This wouldn’t be such an issue if that gunplay was of such a high quality that you could overlook the lack of fight action, but here it is merely good rather than great.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected much from the action considering director Michael Chiang’s only other two directing credits were for the lackluster Fearless (2012), not to be confused with the Jet Li classic of the same name, and the equally poor Hero of the Beggars (2013). However, it wasn’t his involvement that made me hopeful regarding the action scenes, rather the fact that Wolf Pack boasts the legendary Stephen Tung Wei as action choreographer.
Any Hong Kong cinema fan worth their salt should be aware of Tung Wei. Whilst not as well known as his fellow action choreographers/directors like Yuen Woo Ping or Yuen Kwai, he has still created some of Hong Kong cinema’s most memorable action scenes.
The best examples of Tung Wai’s work are buddy cop film Pom Pom and Hot Hot (1992), where he not only choreographed the action but co-starred alongside Hong Kong superstar Jacky Cheung as well as his own directorial offering Fox Hunter (1995) which features some of the most energetic gunplay of the 90’s.
Most recently he has worked on bid budget spectacles like Operation Mekong (2016) and The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021) which show that he hasn’t lost his touch. This makes his work in Wolf Pack all the more dumbfounding, as he has countlessly shown in the past as well as now that he is capable of so much more.
Even the work he carried out in Zhang’s previous film, the aforementioned The Invincible Dragon was more entertaining than what is here. Perhaps its budgetary limitations, but this never stopped him in the past from creating action scenes full of imagination. Here the action is mostly Wolf Warrior (2015) lite.
I was really hoping for the best for Wolf Pack, but there isn’t much in the way to differentiate it from the countless other military action movies that popped up in the wake of Wolf Warrior 2 (2017). This one does appear to have better production values than some of the others and a better leading man in Zhang, but considering those involved it really should have risen above the rest of the DTV fodder.
Hopefully this doesn’t hold Zhang back as he still has the potential to be the next great martial arts star. There has been a rumored Master Z sequel but I haven’t heard much about that recently. There was also talk at one point of his involvement in a further S.P.L movie, but again it has been quiet regarding the film’s development. Here’s hoping that it won’t be long until he is once again in a starring vehicle worthy of his talents.
Plot: 2/5 Acting: 3/5 Action: 2.5/5 Overall: 2.5/5