Monday, September 11, 2023

Howling into the Void: Wolf Pack (2023) Review

Director: Michael Chiang

Notable Cast: Max Zhang, Aarif Rahman, Jiang Luxia, Mark Luu, Zhang Yi, Xue Jianing, Ye Liu


Honestly, I’ll watch any film with Max Zhang in it. His rise to leading A-list stardom in China has been a blast to follow and he quickly becomes a highlight of any film he’s in. When it was announced he would be in a new military action flick, Wolf Pack, along with Aarif Rahman and Jiang Luxia - two very underrated stars in their own right - I was doubly in. A military group led by Zhang kicking ass, taking names, and setting their sites on out-America-ing Hollywood in military actioners with weirdly patriotic themes? Hell yeah, I’m in. 


For all of its bullet blasting, secret character heroics, and a handful of exciting action set pieces, Wolf Pack is a movie that throws many punches and only lands a few of them. A charm is inherent in many of its ideas and a few of its executions. Still, its narrative could be more straightforward, and its characters - despite some fantastic casting - are bland blends of various tropes and unfinished arcs. Wolf Pack does a lot of loud howling, but it's howling its loudest into a void that swallows any sound and kills any lingering echo after the credits roll. 


Mixing some interesting tonalities, Wolf Pack is attempting to tackle the military action thriller by introducing its audience to Ke Tong, played by the almost too-pretty for-his-own-good Aarif Rahman, the latest recruit to this private military contractor team. It’s not unusual for a film to use an audience surrogate to be a vessel in introducing the world of a film, particularly one steeped in foreign conflicts and other socio-political missions. Still, Wolf Pack makes the fascinating choice of having Ke Tong be an unwilling participant. 


He never wants to be there. This does give Rahman a solid character arc to explore as he’s essentially kidnapped and forced to be in this mercenary group for some missions where he gradually is won over by their cause. Their cause is that I guess they take some of their money and donate it to orphans, and they do haphazardly end up defending a Chinese gas pipeline from terrorists…so propaganda? It’s a stretch, but we should love these mercenaries for their familial bonds and unrelenting abilities to slaughter entire terrorist organizations. At least, that’s what Wolf Pack tells us, even when it doesn’t make sense. And if you think Ke Tong will not side with them by the end, you’ll need to re-read the action film playbook. 


Thus, Wolf Pack is a thinly stitched-together series of missions that leads our protagonists to save a Chinese gas pipeline by the third act and does so in a significantly melodramatic manner along the way. Ke Tong consistently argues with Max Zhang’s leader Lao Guan, about their tactics, and he’s regularly proven wrong or misinformed that what the team is doing is morally wrong and misguided. Cause, I guess, hidden propaganda? Again, it’s a stretch. 


Despite its thinly written plotting and formulaic characterizations, Wolf Pack knows that most of its audience isn’t pressing play on their TV for its script. They’re there to watch the action and, quite frankly, Wolf Pack delivers. 


Although it’s the big final fight for Max Zhang against the big bad terrorist in the third act that steals the show (again, Zhang owns every film when he starts throwing fists and feet), the film features many great action set pieces. Chases through the desert, gun fights that hark back to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema, and some solid vehicular stunts make Wolf Pack a decently entertaining film. All of its cast are in it to win it for the action, and it almost becomes apparent that the film feels more comfortable progressing the characters through action than in the more dramatic beats. Most of the cast are well versed in more prominent action films, some of which lean even further into CGI fantasy fests, but it’s comforting when the film shakes its script and does what it does best - showing people kicking ass. 


Wolf Pack may be a disappointing militaristic action flick in a year brimming with great action. However, it still manages to entertain with its impactful fist-to-cuffs, throbbing gun battles, and increasing tension in its ticking clock narrative of the final act. If only the characters and concept were stronger as an origin story for this team of mercenaries, Wolf Pack could have easily been a fantastic kick-off for a future franchise. As is, action fans will enjoy it for its blend of throwback action and modern military spectacle, but it’s a light recommend as best for die-hards. More casual fans are better off to check out some of Max Zhang’s other action classics. 


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider


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