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In Rambo: First Blood Part II Colonel Sam Trautman visits John Rambo in prison. He asks Rambo if instead of finishing his sentence would he be willing to go back to Vietnam to rescue the Prisoners Of War the US government forgot about? Rambo responds: “Do we get to win this time?” The Rambo series pivoted at this point from a sensitive examination of how Vietnam veterans were treated upon their return to a right-wing, patriotic fantasy of what if we could do it again but as we always imagined? It was propaganda in all but name and it marked a point where the action movie became the most powerful political tool in filmmaking.
Propaganda is nothing new to cinema. Before movies had sound they were being used as propaganda. Birth of a Nation rewrote history in 1915 by making the Northern Union and slaves the villains of the US Civil War while painting the KKK led southern Confederacy as the heroes. It is often hailed as one of the influential movies ever made by the likes of Martin Scorsese and late, great film critic Roger Ebert. Some of the most famous propaganda films like Triumph of the Will and Jud Süß were made in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s by female director Leni Riefenstahl. But propaganda films are not all pomp and ceremony.
In his article on Starship Troopers 20th anniversary for HeadStuff Ged Murray wrote: “Audiences, as Goebbels was well aware, cared more about when the two leads might kiss than matters of ideology.” Movies can be massively popular vehicles for political causes but they have to be entertaining first and foremost. Clint Eastwood’s Westerns and war movies along with his vigilante and cop movies all had their day but from the 1980s on action movies became the easiest and most popular delivery system for messages from those in power. Whether it was Rambo or Commando the action movie got audiences hooting and hollering for the blood of Communists and other bad guys but mostly Communists.
These days it seems we have the inverse. The Wolf Warrior series of films – comprising two at the moment with a third in the works – is a Chinese franchise with a combined box office gross of nearly a billion dollars. It is also Chinese propaganda. Characters talk about how defending China is hard work but worth it just to see the borders safe. Wolf Warrior 2 ends as Leng Feng (Wu Jing), the film’s main character, wraps a Chinese flag around his arm and forces two warring factions to declare a temporary truce out of respect for the perseverance and determination displayed by Leng Feng and by-proxy all of patriotic China. A poster for Wolf Warrior 2 has Leng Feng giving the middle finger with the slogan: “Anyone who offends China, no matter how remote, must be exterminated.” It’s ridiculous and transparent but at least it’s clear and honest with its message. It’s also a great action film.
While Wolf Warrior is quite hoke-y and has a low production feel to it Wolf Warrior 2 is all bright colours, massive explosions and high budget grandeur. It helps that star and director Wu Jing is a committed performer with two decades of experience working in the ceaseless production cycles of Hong Kong action movies. He’s also a massive patriot and where the most popular Chinese star Fan Bingbing disappeared off the face of the earth for a while earlier in the year Wu Jing’s star is only rising.
Both Wolf Warrior films have Westerners as their villains. Scott Adkins plays Tom Cat in Wolf Warrior. Frank Grillo plays Big Daddy in Wolf Warrior 2. Both are arrogant, irredeemable and most importantly American. Both them and their multi-cultural but nonetheless villainous teams are mercenaries which allows Leng Feng to dispatch them all brutally without raising international ire.
So if China are making bombastic action operas on a scale that’d make Sylvester Stallone weep, what’s America doing? Not much and not well. Mile 22 is the most recent offering from the boneheaded pair of Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg. The director and lead actor respectively of such heavy-handed features as Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and Patriot’s Day, their latest offering Mile 22 feels like a right winger’s wet dream response to Russian collusion if right wingers actually cared about Russian collusion. James Silva (Mark Wahlberg) makes a big song and dance about what he and his team are doing is saving the world. If saving the world involves clandestine CIA death squads maybe it’s past saving?
At one point Silva yells at CIA computer nerds about not finding the location of missing radioactive material fast enough. In this ear-crippling, spit filled rant he goes on a tangent about Hiroshima. An illegal American operative talking about one of the biggest war crimes committed by his own country you say? Fetch my smelling salts! The stench of the irony may overpower me! It honestly beggars belief. It doesn’t help that Berg shoots the action like a parody of a Jason Bourne movie and side-lines Iko Uwais and Ronda Rousey – the movie’s only truly capable fighters.
Mile 22’s story may as well be incomprehensible there are so many pieces in play and loose ends. Wolf Warrior 2’s story is thin on the ground but it’s clear cut and knows what it’s doing and where it’s going. It’s heroes are likeable and it’s villains are not. Mile 22 puts so much emphasis on boneheaded lunk Wahlberg that it may as well have no other characters. Wahlberg’s James Silva would probably be the villain in a Wolf Warrior film. He is, frankly, an arrogant prick with no redeeming qualities. Even Rambo cracked the odd smile.
Propaganda will have its place as long as war exists. Top Gun is basically one long US Air Force ad. I don’t mind watching propaganda because regardless of its political message the entertainment factor will always come first for me. If it’s bad I’ll turn it off, if it’s good I’ll keep watching. For now though I’ll be plastering my wall with posters of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping and telling all my friends about the glory of the Revolution. Mile 22 meanwhile belongs in the bin with whatever right wing idealism spawned it.