Movie Review: The Great Wall

Epic monster film set in the Song Dynasty delivers very colorful action

The Great Wall
Directed by Zhang Yimou
With Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau

Big budget international co-productions have a checkered history. The US-Chinese effort The Great Wall offers a lot of good things and a few rough spots, putting it a bit ahead of the curve.

And if you are willing to overlook the controversy of casting Matt Damon as the lead in a costume drama-fantasy taking place at the titular Chinese location, it is actually one of the better of the CGI-filled action films of 2016. The film was released in China and some other Asian markets already before the end of the year.

The basic project was for a Chinese production company, with the help of US partners, to make a film that had Chinese cultural elements, world-famous stars, a story basically in English and a huge global box office potential.

Before it came out, though, there was already a backlash against using Caucasian actors as the stars in a Chinese historical fantasy film. One one hand, casting Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe potentially took work from Asian actors and also shifted the focus of the story away from Asian characters. On the other hand, without the big international names The Great Wall would not have been made with a $150 million budget and would not have had a global release. So none of the cast of hundreds of actors (not to mention thousands of technicians) would have had work at all or any amount of international exposure.

The film is meant to be a colorful fantasy in the distant Song Dynasty, roughly the 11th century AD. It has its share of historical flaws, but it is a monster-filled adventure, not a history lesson.

The story has Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal as the European mercenaries William Garin and Pero Tovar. They have headed east to search for truth behind rumors of a black powder weapon that will make them rich. They have gone too far to head back, and no longer have the will to go forward.

Soon they wind up at the Great Wall of China, which is heavily defended. Luckily they are not the first to head that way. A man name Ballard (played by Willem Dafoe) has been trapped there for years and has taught some people English and Latin. This allows the bulk of the film to plausibly be in English, while minor characters talk Mandarin among themselves.

The battle that clearly looms at the Great Wall is not against a rival Chinese faction. The attack, we find out fairly quickly, is from thousands upon thousands of vicious green reptilian monsters of a species called Taotie. The Great Wall, in this alternative history account, was built to keep them out.

The script follows standard protocols. William and Pero have to prove themselves to their captors. The battle won't easily be won, and there is some amount of duplicity and treachery from the usual suspects. And there's lots bloodshed and daring fights, allowing several people to be heroic.

Plus points include very strong female roles. Some of the elite fighters are women, led by actress Jing Tian as Commander Lin Mae of the Crane Troop. She has been in several Chinese-made crime action films and will soon be in the Hollywood films Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising. Also from the Chinese cast if Andy Lau, a Hong Kong actor who has been active since the 1980s.

Another big plus is that director Zhang Yimou brought a strong visual style to the proceedings, with an emphasis on bold and colorful costumes, massive crowd scenes, stunning landscapes and lavish sets. The battles are impressively choreographed visual ballets with lots of physical stunts. There are also some visually poetic scenes such as the launching of thousands of paper lanterns after the death of a key character. Even the CGI scenes with the hordes of monsters have a strong eye on composition.

The director doesn't get very deep and emotional performances from his cast, but he manages to make the rather fanciful story at least credible enough for those who want to go along with it.

Zhang is known for his award winning art house hits such as Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) as well as the martial-arts romances like House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006).

One the negative side, the story has been criticized already in China for not being authentic to Chinese story motifs, and instead having just the most obvious cultural references. This is likely due the script and original story coming from Hollywood writers including Bourne series writer Tony Gilroy, as well as Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard, who both worked on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), which was also criticized for its casting. The original story was in part by Max Brooks, the son of comedy writer Mel Brooks.

But setting aside questions of authenticity, The Great Wall delivers some beautifully staged and decent action sequences, with a moderately well-acted if uninspired monster story. It is not unlike the Orc sequences in The Lord of the Rings films, with a more cheerful color scheme and a less complex plot.

But shoe-horning Hollywood actors into watered-down historical Asian settings does not seem like a viable long-term game plan for Chinese film studios seeking a global audience. The novelty may work once or twice, but after that the studios will have to offer something more authentic if they hope to score both at home and abroad with big-budget action fare.

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