Director: Vincent Zhao
Notable Cast: Vincent Zhao, Jiang Yiyi, Diego Dati, Lu Peng
Also known as: Counter Attack
After the success of Wolf Warrior II as a home-grown mega-blockbuster that didn’t need the help of the foreign box office to make it onto the list of highest-grossing films of all time, it’s a bit of a shock that more films weren’t immediately jumping on board to replicate the success. It was a film that took a popular actor, in this case, Wu Jing, and made him one of the biggest box office draws in the nation. Not to mention, the star directed the film and suddenly he was a hot commodity in that area too. That kind of ego boost for Wu Jing is impressive. Yet, there wasn't the boom of knock-offs that one might expect. However, speaking of an ego boost, please allow Vincent Zhao to enter this review.
Zhao looks to replicate the success of the previously mentioned film with Strike Back (or also titled Counter Attack according to the title on the film) as his directorial debut. It’s a film that feels much larger than its intimate plotting, features Zhao in the lead role, and blends golden age Hollywood action with Chinese action stereotypes. It’s one that, on paper, should be just as fun and silly as one would hope, allowing Vincent Zhao all of the praise while delivering an easy to digest piece of entertainment.
The problem with Strike Back, particularly compared to the previously mentioned blockbuster hit, is that so much of it lacks that inherent and naturalistic charisma necessary for a film like this to hit its mark. Its story, which finds Zhao’s private military sniper/jet pack pilot/jet pack pilot sniper/all-around military badass at the center of a frame job in a foreign country, is often convoluted and formulaic. His character, Ziming, ends up on the run with a plucky young reporter, played by Jiang Yiyi, and trying to clear his name while taking down baddies. It’s a formula that I’m completely on board within the generic action film sense as long as the execution is there.
Yet, Strike Back needs a lot more charm to sell its merchandise. Zhao, as a director and star, desperately attempts to embed humor and heart into the proceedings, as his lead character teaches the young reporter how to be a sniper in record time or how his old partner shows up to remind him of his loyalties. Almost immediately these elements become disconnected and forced into the plot, thinly veiled motivations for paltry characters in a formulaic narrative. There is some wink-wink silliness to enjoy in the plot, particularly in the unintentional humor of some of its key moments - including a cold open that features Zhao in a jet back trying to snipe a man in a moving boat, but it’s not nearly enough to awash the film in the pure entertainment it should have contained.
With that being said, if you’re not watching Strike Back for the flaccid characters and motivations, you’re probably here for the action and, quite frankly, that part is pretty solid. Zhao may struggle with delivering the heart and humor in much of the film for dramatic effect, but he continues to be quite capable on the action front. Not only does he continue to be a star in this aspect, delivering some fantastic moments of ass-kickery on-screen, but he delivers as a director too. There are a ton of fun visual quirks in the action, the pacing is spot-on in these moments, and the choreography delivers plenty of pop. The combination of modern style with classic Chinese action certainly lifts this film into positive territory.
Is Strike Back the next Wolf Warrior II? Not at all. Oddly enough, both films often suffer from the same issues. There are thin scripts, hollow characters, and a sense of humanity that tends to be forced into the writing and performances that never syncs up with the intentions. Yet, Strike Back is blissfully packed with incredibly well shot and choreographed action and its stupidly efficient pace means that it rarely overstays its welcome in the struggles it does endure. Vincent Zhao remains the intriguing action star he always was, but now one can add intriguing director to that resume too. Strike Back is hardly a great film, but in ways to burn 80 minutes - it suffices to entertain just enough.