BEIJING (NYTIMES) - China's new favourite action hero single-handedly routs pirates off the African coast in undersea combat.
He wakes up fit to fight after nearly dying from a flesh-eating plague. He wields guns galore, poison arrows and a tank to wipe out the mercenaries led by the villainous Big Daddy, a swaggering, sneering US soldier of fortune.
But in the end, what saves the hero of Wolf Warrior 2, China's most popular movie ever, is a Chinese flag wrapped around his arm.
The success of the two-hour film, featuring a red-tinged Rambo named Leng Feng, is being seen in China as a pointer to the national mood after almost five years under Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Xi has promoted a spirit of hawkish patriotism and warned that Western forces want to bully China into submission.
"Whoever offends the Chinese will be wiped out no matter how far away", goes an ancient phrase used to promote Leng Feng in two movies so far.
Set in a fictitious African country overrun by insurgents and an Ebola-like epidemic, Wolf Warrior 2 has broken records in Chinese cinemas since its release in late July.
By Wednesday (Aug 16), it had taken in US$722 million (S$987.8 ) in ticket sales in three weeks, easily surpassing The Mermaid, a romantic fantasy released last year, as the top-grossing film of all time in China.
"We must admit that for a long time your Hollywood movies have been better made than Chinese movies, so we watched them all," said Zou Ping, a parcel delivery worker in his 20s, leaving a showing of Wolf Warrior 2 in Beijing. "But now you must also admit that this movie was pretty good, and it has a Chinese hero. It feels good to be on the side of justice."
Leng Feng made his first outing in Wolf Warrior, released in 2015. It did fairly well. But even the actor who plays him, Wu Jing, who directed and co-wrote both films, has been astounded by the success of the sequel, which had a bigger budget.
"This wasn't my personal achievement, it was an explosion of patriotic feeling among all Chinese," Wu said in an interview with a Chinese website. "The patriotic kindling in people's hearts has been dried as far as it can be, and I, Wu Jing, have taken a small match or spark and dropped it on, lighting up all of you."
Officials with the ruling Communist Party and party-run media have cheered Wolf Warrior 2 as proving that the public yearns for its own heroes, not merely Hollywood spectacles with Chinese actors in cameos.
"This has been a turnaround move for Chinese on the big screen after years of being kept down by Hollywood-manufactured heroes," Hu Xijin, the editor of The Global Times, a popular tabloid, wrote in a column.
People's Daily, the main paper of the Communist Party, praised the film as a "box office miracle".
But views on Douban, a popular Chinese review website, have been fiercely divided. Some viewers loved the film's patriotic theme and propulsive action, while others faulted it for chauvinism and for patronising Africans, who are mowed down and blown up in the war scenes.
Yet Wolf Warrior 2 has twists that set it apart from standard Chinese film epics, which often show flawless party heroes and deliver political lectures lightly disguised as dialogue. Leng Feng, by contrast, is a moody individual on a quest. Thrown out of the Chinese military, he gulps a fiery Chinese liquor, Moutai, to drown memories of his dead girlfriend.
"In effect, this film is a hybrid of Hollywood-style movie superhero with Chinese-style patriotism," said Yin Hong, a film critic who teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
"That's different from before, when patriotism meant that there was no room for individual values," Yin said. "This film satisfies the audience's admiration for an individual superhero, but behind that there's also a strong sense of country."
The film has won welcome at a time when China seems increasingly confident about cementing its global status but still sees the United States and general Western hostility as standing in its way.
For many Chinese, it seems fitting to see those themes in a movie that feels like a Hollywood spectacle reworked to make the Westerners the villains. Even with heavy restrictions on film imports, Hollywood action films have been a pillar of the Chinese box office, while conventional patriotic Chinese movies have often floundered.
The Chinese Communist Party is not mentioned. Instead, the film celebrates the prowess and hardware of the People's Liberation Army, including missiles launched from Chinese warships that unerringly destroy the bad guys while sparing the civilians hiding nearby. ("I guess the Chinese military ain't as lame as I thought," says Big Daddy.) "There are a number of things that don't really fit into what you would expect from a straight patriotic film," said Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Chinese society and cinema.
"It's a very individualist personal quest, which is much more of a Hollywood thing," he said. "They're definitely downplaying the Communist Party in favour of patriotism and defending Chinese people and Chinese interests all over the world."
But the story comes loaded with talk of China's rise and peaceful intentions - both standard Communist Party talking points - and the decline of the imperialist West.
Even by action-film standards, it takes some leaps of logic. (Warning: Plot giveaways follow.) Leng Feng wanders Africa searching for the killer of his commando girlfriend, who died while he was in prison for attacking a heartless property developer. He is swept up in a murderous war. About to flee on a Chinese navy ship, he volunteers to go back for dozens of Chinese factory workers, along with a famous doctor, trapped in the mayhem.
The film is driven by explosions, gunfights and hand-to-hand combat. But along the way it makes swipes about what is portrayed as Western fickleness and hypocrisy. China is the brotherly helper of Africa, ready to send in its peacekeepers when the United Nations gives the nod.
"You're going to die for those people," Big Daddy spits at Leng Feng, as Chinese and African civilians wail nearby.
"My life is for them," Leng Feng replies.
Western saviors are nowhere to be found. Rachel, the Chinese-speaking doctor who joins Leng Feng, tries calling the US Consulate for help, but nobody answers.
"When I was looking out to sea from the dock, I saw a Stars and Stripes flag among the countless masts heading into the distance," Leng Feng says. But Chinese navy ships are waiting offshore to rescue citizens.
Leng Feng eventually leads the rescued workers to a UN camp guarded by Chinese peacekeepers. But their truck convoy is blocked by rebels fighting government forces, and passing safely seems impossible.
Then Leng Feng wraps a Chinese national flag on his arm and waves it. The African fighters stop shooting and let the convoy pass.
"Hold your fire, it's the Chinese," one yells.
Not surprisingly, the hero puts a bloody end to Big Daddy, played by Frank Grillo, a US actor known for violent action roles.
"Blood for blood," Leng Feng tells Big Daddy as they lunge at each other.
"People like you will always be beaten by people like me," Big Daddy says. "Get used to it." "That's history," Leng Feng says, adding a salty oath, and he kills Big Daddy in a frenzy of stabs.