By Jeff Boudreaux
“The Great Wall,” as visually inventive as it strives to be, is a would-be epic by Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers,” “Hero”), a man who is probably one of the greatest directors to ever come out of China. As it is, at $150 million, this is the costliest film ever made in that particular country. What’s really unfortunate is that some of the most spectacular scenes ever filmed lose all validity due to the ridiculous, run-of-the-mill, CGI-animated creatures which are supposed to represent the Tao Tei (legendary Chinese monsters throughout that country’s folklore). Here, they are nothing more than an endless group of invading creatures that are relegated to scaling the titular wall (a la “World War Z”) for the entire length of the film. Well, luckily the vast Chinese army in the days of the Song Dynasty happen to capture a wandering Matt Damon, as he’s the only one who knows how to kill them!
Two rugged European mercenaries, William (multi-Oscar nominee Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal of “Game of Thrones”) are on a quest to obtain a powerful “black powder” (yes, gunpowder which was invented by the Chinese) to aid them in their daily battles. Unfortunately for them, they are attacked by a Tao Tei monster (a creature which looks as if the Umbrella Corporation obtained and harvested some eggs from the finale of the God-awful 1998 American version of “Godzilla”)! Completely laughable and unconvincing creature aside, William manages to kill the attacker with a sword, but also with the help of a mysterious rock that was discovered by a recently-fallen comrade. Chased out of these “magnetically-rich” mountains by an angry band of sultans, William and Tovar wind up right on the doorsteps of the Great Wall of China. Initially taken as prisoners, they soon become quite handy when the Tao Tei (controlled by a queen they protect to no end) immediately attack the wall. While William is helplessly forced to watch soldier after soldier die at the hands (or more specifically the jaws) of the monsters, he soon convinces them that it would be in their best interest to cut them loose. Smart move, as William and Tovar are able to teach a thousand warriors how to deal with the invaders, and they garner a little bit of respect in the bargain.
A major battle ensues and General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) is mortally wounded, and he turns over his leadership medallion to Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), a lovely, young warrior who must prove her worth by protecting the millions of innocent people behind the wall. Helping her are a cleaned-up William and his partner Tovar, who have appeared to be inseparable from the beginning of the film. Yet, while William is convincing Commander Lin that magnets are the way to expedite defeat for their assailants, Tovar is thinking about flying the coup with another foreigner named Ballard (screen-veteran Willem Dafoe), who has actually been held hostage behind the wall for the past 25 years! Up until this point, Commander Lin never really alludes to whether or not she would let the men go free. When you think about it, can you really blame Tovar for not wanting to end up a trustee in the Great Wall’s ersatz prison?! Nevertheless, hero that he is, William has every intention to fight alongside Lin, and the two must figure out a path to victory, even as the Tao Tei Queen appears as impenetrable as she is unrelenting.
This really was an impressive visual treat, regardless of the plodding moments throughout the screenplay by no less than six writers. While I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the depiction of the film’s villains, this really is just another rehash of the classic “hold the fort” storyline that we’ve witnessed time and again dating back to Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” in 1959, which was wonderfully perpetuated by John Carpenter in 1976’s “Assault on Precinct 13.” I’m not going to fault “The Great Wall” for that, those films are a “great” source of inspiration. And truth be told, there were some things that worked out just fine. One such instance was the amazing production design by Oscar-winner John Myhre (“Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”). The Great Wall itself, its battle-ready fortress, the Imperial Palace…all impeccably rendered on film. A particularly memorable scene for me involved the all-female “Crane Corps,” a group of amazing, agile women armed with spears, who would dive and attack the ground monsters, all the while tethered from planks high atop the fortress! What a sheer joy to behold.
I also thought that Yimou conducted a beautifully choreographed display of Chinese lanterns to commemorate the death of General Shao, perfectly illuminating the night sky in quite possibly the film’s best and most poignant scene. There were also some very large hot-air balloons in flight in the latter half of the film, for a stupendous aerial attack on these horrible-looking creatures. I also find the so-called “whitewashing” charge thrown upon star Matt Damon to be utterly preposterous. You’d think he was Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” the way some people are carrying on. I do believe, however, that he is strangely miscast here. Better yet, I’m actually wondering what he was trying to accomplish in this film. He’s without a doubt one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, which is why it is so confusing that he would be playing the part of a British mercenary who speaks 95 percent of his lines with no accent whatsoever. However, during a couple of scenes opposite Commander Lin, he jarringly decides to present his lines in an inexplicable Irish brogue! Was Yimou so unfamiliar working with English-speaking actors that he couldn’t decipher the difference between Damon’s inconsistent readings? For such an accomplished actor/director collaboration, this is quite unacceptable and frankly ridiculous.
Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing Yimou’s previous film, “Coming Home.” What was probably made on a shoestring budget, eclipsed his latest effort in every way imaginable. It had the heart-wrenching drama, the pathos, the social consciousness that we’ve come to expect in Yimou’s work. I think he may have stepped outside of his comfort zone on this one. This is the director’s first English-language film, and it definitely shows. As I understand, “The Great Wall” has already made a heap of money in China, and it’s probably going to reap its share of rewards stateside as well. Here’s hoping that Yimou takes his share of the box office receipts, and goes back to directing quality films on a substantial, yet delightfully smaller scale.