By Elias Savada.
So, let’s get to the big question you’re asking your mirror. Is Matt Damon’s new fantasy action movie the greatest wall of them all? Well, for big screen entertainment, including those of you who like this sort of FX-driven, over-stylized, popcorn munching diversion, The Great Wall is indeed a big budget ($150 million) movie being projected on a big wall, particularly if you’re going to catch it in IMAX. Word has it that President Trump plans to use this Chinese-American co-production as a training film for that big project he plans to build on America’s southern border. Maybe he’ll get Mexico to pay for your admission.
Wall kidding aside, for those cinephiles who are telling themselves that the acclaimed Zhang Yimou can do no wrong, I beg to differ. While there is an extraordinary (over)-abundance of style in his new work – his first English-language film – there won’t be any awards given out here. No Golden Bear from the Berlin International Film Festival, a trophy he won for his 1987 directorial debut, Red Sorghum. No Academy Awards nomination for foreign-language feature, like he earned for Ju Dou (199), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), and Hero (2002). No Golden Globe nod (five films). No earnest critic circle award (plenty). You get the idea. Maybe if it the Chinese actors spoke in their native tongue, rather than struggling with some of the English dialogue, especially Jing Tian (as Lin Mae), the film would have garner a stronger presence. Nah, and Americans would have laughed at Damon’s dubbed lines.
As for Damon, he’s fine but hardly inspiring in his role as William Garin, a weary mercenary traipsing about the Gobi Desert during the 12th-century Song Dynasty. He shows off his daring do with some archery hijinks (not enough to merit catching it in 3D, in my opinion) which have allowed him to scoot about the globe protecting this ruler or that pope. Actually the film showcases an alternate version of the era as envisioned by a host of writers (Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz), who have whipped an absurdist, high-flying tale into an over-produced series of battles. Those engorging set pieces involve a species of savage reptilian, frog-like beasts called Tao Tei, which appear every 60 years (why so well rounded?) to feast for eight days on human beings. Why not eat snakes, gnats, or crackers? Because that’s how mythology works. And, according to the film’s press material, it’s “to punish mankind’s greed.” Huh? Maybe we could use some of these monsters today. Greed is all over the place.
Anyway, the good group that battles these hordes of monsters are based, apparently their entire life, in the Fortress City within the Great Wall, which was built to prevent these ugly, supernatural creatures (their coolest feature: a wavering head comb that allows them to communicate from afar) from heading to the region’s capital, Bianliang. These soldiers are called The Nameless Order. Wait a friggin’ minute, their name is nameless? Why do they need the Nameless in their group? Wouldn’t have The Scriptless Order been a better name?
The wall’s human warriors serve in one of five divisions, each with its own color scheme (gold, royal blue, red, purple, and black). Their leader, General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), will pass his baton to his beautiful daughter, Lin Mae, the dynamic (except for her static English delivery) leader of the aerial battalion, the Crane Corps. Other soldiers belong to the engineering and artillery forces known as Tiger Corps, run by Commander Wu (Eddie Peng Yu-Yen); the Deer Corps (cavalry), headed by Commander Deng (Xuan Huang); the Eagle Corps (crossbow marksmen) under Commander Chen (Lin Gengxin); and the Bear Corps (combat), lead by Peng Yong (Lu Han). Han is one of two Chinese pop-music hotties stunt casted by the producers to stretch their box office hopes. He’s actually decent and has a fine send off in the climactic battle scenes. Junkai Wang (frontman for China’s TFBOYS) fares poorly as a whimpering 17-year-old emperor in a thankfully brief appearance.
Richard Taylor oversaw the weapons design, some of which slice and dice nicely, but the visual effects (supervised by Phil Brennan) are not terribly enthralling. I kept thinking I was watching a poor man’s version of The Lord of the Rings.
Damon’s character is accompanied by a comic sidekick, his best bud Pero Tovar, a cynical Spaniard played with gusto by Pedro Pascal (Netflix’s Narcos [2015- ] and HBO’s Game of Thrones [2011- ]). Pero does seem to make a few too many bad decisions, but always manages to right himself. The film’s only other American cast member is Willem Dafoe, whose role as a long-confined prisoner could have been cut. He does share with William and Pero the same thirst for the mysterious black powder (gunpowder) they all hope to secure for untold riches from this “weapon of our dreams.”
The Great Wall‘s biggest distraction, however, was how clean so many of the fighters look. Impeccably attired in their armor and spiffy wardrobe, too many of them seem out of place in the battlefield atop the wall. It was particularly unsettling every time leading actress Jung Tian was onscreen, with a porcelain face, well-aligned eyebrows, some well-placed lipstick, and nary a smudge in sight. Maybe that’s why you could categorize this as a fantasy film.
As a spectacle epic, cinematographers Stuart Dryburgh and Zhao Xiaoding capture the landscapes like a VistaVision western, while production designer John Myhre is busy creating the period, albeit one you probably won’t remember after you’ve heading home from the theater.
And don’t get me started about how the writers manage to fit magnets into the story. (Holy Kryptonite!)
Sure, there’s plenty enough Chinese star power (including a small visit by Andy Lau) to light the heavens above, where one might think would be the better place to view the huge barrier that is the film’s centerpiece. Like the myth that the real Great Wall can be seen from space, The Great Wall visibly crumbles into absurdity.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).