Constance Wu Should Have Been A Movie Star

Like a lot of streaming-era “television shows,” the biggest issue with Antoine Fuqua’s The Terminal List, arriving today on Amazon Prime is that the eight-part, 7.5-hour (counting credits) military conspiracy actioner should have been a 135-minute movie. Unlike, say, Amazon’s great Reacher or Netflix’s terrific The Lincoln Lawyer, The Terminal List, starring Chris Pratt as a Navy Seal who uncovers a diabolical conspiracy concerning an overseas mission that went wrong, doesn’t feel like episodic television. It’s one exceptionally long movie broken up into eight parts because that’s how it’s done today. Anyway, beyond the core issues (padded-out storytelling, a near-total lack of humor, drab colors, etc.) it marks a reappearance of Constance Wu. She plays a dogged journalist who eventually aligns herself with Pratt’s quest for the truth, and she’s as good as the material will allow her to be. It’s also a reminder that she was on her way to possibly being a butts-in-seats movie star before Covid turned the world upside down.

We’ve been having variations of the whole “Who is still a movie star?” conversation for at least the last decade. In terms of drawing audiences to theaters sans a franchise or marquee character, Leonardo DiCaprio qualifies, as does Sandra Bullock and (under certain circumstances) the likes of Denzel Washington, Dwayne Johnson, Tom Cruise, Gerard Butler and presumably Kevin Hart. I say “presumably” because while comic stars like Will Ferrell and Melissa McCarthy stopped being able to open a movie before Covid, Hart was knocking out $20 million-plus openers like Night School and The Upside, along with the “not quite the same thing” likes of Secret Life of Pets 2 and Jumanji: The Next Level. Since Covid, Fatherhood and The Man from Toronto have gone to Netflix, and who knows when we’ll get another non-franchise (sorry, Borderlands) Hart theatrical again. However, the Fresh Off the Boat star was on a 2/2 run (Crazy Rich Asians and Hustlers) before the pandemic squelched the theatrical marketplace.

There are variables related to the blow-out success of Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians ($174 million domestic and $235 million worldwide on a $35 million budget in the summer of 2018) and STX’s Hustlers ($104 million domestic and $157.5 million worldwide on a $20 million budget in the Fall of 2019). Jon M. Chu’s acclaimed and buzzy adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel was sold and embraced as a generational event both for Asian American audiences and for all moviegoers who yearned for the return of the big-budget, old-school romantic comedy. Hustlers, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria and based on a true story about strippers who conned, drugged and otherwise swindled their corporate clientele, boasted a showy (and Oscar-snubbed) supporting turn from Jennifer Lopez, added value from Keke Palmer, Cardi B., Lizzo and Lili Reinhart and plenty of critically acclaimed, guilt-free “sex sells” appeal. Nonetheless, Constance Wu’s first two starring vehicles nabbed a $35 million Wed-Sun and $33 million Fri-Sun opening weekend.

We don’t know how much Wu’s popularity and/or added value made those films bigger hits than they otherwise might have been. Sure, lots of folks watched Nahnatchka Khan’s Fresh Off the Boat during its six seasons on ABC, and Jessica Huang was certainly the show’s breakout character (even if Wu inexplicably never even got a single Emmy nomination for the role, which says a lot about the Emmys’ obsession with cable and streaming over conventional network television). However, it’s not like every breakout television star becomes the next George Clooney. Sometimes, they’re (at best) the next Jon Hamm. However, here’s one thing I do know for sure. If any white guy’s first two non-franchise, non-marquee character-specific starring vehicles had opened $26 million (amid a $35 million Wed-Sun launch) and $33 million, he’d have been crowned the next Tom Cruise. He’d have gotten his own shiny franchise, $10 million for his next star vehicle, a lifetime of second chances and an everlasting presumption of bankability.

Talent notwithstanding, Russell Crowe is still coasting on Gladiator’s Oscar-winning and blockbuster success from 22 years ago, while the various Chrises (Pine, Pratt, Hemsworth, Evans, etc.) are treated like A-listers despite most of their successes being in explicit franchise flicks. Heck, Twitter likes to pretend that Pratt is the “worst Chris,” but he and Jennifer Lawrence at least pushed Passengers, an original, adult-skewing sci-fi romance to $300 million global. That’s not even counting the likes of Taylor Kitsch (a fine actor who bombed in John Carter and Battleship ten years ago and still gets treated like a prestige get in the likes of True Detective season two and, hey, The Terminal List), Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taron Egerton, Charlie Hunnam, Josh Lucas, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney, Josh Duhamel, Tye Sheridan or Alden Ehrenreich who get plum roles and are treated like stars for no reason. Armie Hammer was treated like an A-lister for a decade until his offscreen allegations sunk him despite not headlining a single hit movie.

None of this is shocking to anyone who follows the industry. It’s worth noting that Melissa McCarthy was constantly discussed in terms of needing career rebab even as original studio comedies like Tammy, The Boss and Life of the Party were knocking out $17-$24 million Fri-Sun weekends (Tammy nabbed $33 million over the Wed-Sun July 4 holiday in 2014 and would earn $100 million global on a $20 million budget). Even if I’m wrong about Constance Wu being a major driver to get folks to show up in theaters to see Crazy Rich Asians and Hustlers. However, before Covid, there was as least as much cause to give her the benefit of the doubt as there would be to credit Timothée Chalamet for Dune or Tom Holland for Uncharted. Alas, due to the pandemic and the current (even pre-Covid) challenges facing non-franchise theatricals in a streaming-focused marketplace, Wu didn’t get her third at-bat in a mainstream studio feature in 2020, 2021 or 2022.

She’s playing second-fiddle on Amazon’s The Terminal List and in Sony’s family-targeted Lyle Lyle Crocodile (opening theatrically in October). That’s no shade. A big-budget streaming action show is probably going to get strong viewership numbers while Steve Carell did some of the best work of his movie career in Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Moreover, it’s nice to see Wu playing characters in mainstream films and shows which doesn’t require a non-white actress. However, I would like to see Wu get a third shot at proving that she’s an actual butts-in-seats movie star. After all, if she were a “he” and/or if “she” were a white actress starring in a romantic comedy or adult-skewing smash, Wu would probably already be treated like “one of the last movie stars.” After her first two wildly overperforming star vehicles, Wu was arguably one breakout hit away from being officially declared a movie star. Here’s hoping she still gets a chance to prove me right (or wrong).

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