THE GREAT WALL
Directed by Yimou Zhang
Screenplay by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy
Story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz
Music by Ramin Djawadi
Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh and Xiaodin Zhao
Film Editing by Mary Jo Markey and Craig Wood
Filmed on location in Qingdao, China and New Zealand
Wait a minute. I had a lot of bones to pick with this movie going in and more coming out. In fact, it is this film that has given rise to a new feature on MEviews: spoiler/niggle reviews. Don’t worry! You aren’t on one; I will run a non-spoiler, such as this and a spoiler/niggle with an extra paragraph. It is up to you to choose. But, I will talk about things everyone already knows about the movie and the thing I just noticed. Are we clear? I heard a “crystal,” so we are golden.
Knowing that this is the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, I was disappointed I couldn’t find an official site for it in Mandarin, hence the button for the trailer in Mandarin. Cantonese may be available on the DVD release in China and other regions. The only areas outside China that I could even find the Mandarin language version released in theatres was Australia and New Zealand. Ooh. Will they be having showings in Japanese? I would be piiiiissed.
Back to things that bothered me in the previews. Why does what appears to be one of the greatest, not to mention to most massive, fighting force ever assembled need Matt Damon to win their battle against the swarming green horde? It’s as insulting as the films where the helpless women are finally saved when a man ambles by to save their swooning asses. Okay, he does some fancy bow-work to impress Chinese military, but is that the thing that is going to turn the tide in their favour? I had some far more effective and lethal plans just watching the trailer and that sucker ran for, what, less than two minutes. However, I was confident the army on The Wall had it covered without a caucasian invasion. Also, if the Blue archers are going to dive off the wall into fierce battle are complicated flips, spins, and other Cirque du Soleil moves on the way down and back really adding to their effectiveness? And what the hell was with Matt Damon’s speech? If this was really in the time period the events suggest, no one but the Vikings had found North America yet, so why did he settle on your average U.S. accent? Now, a Boston one would have been hysterical.
With all these niggling doubts I went into the movie with rather low expectations, but it was in 3D, so yeah! there’s fun to be had. The 3D was pointless. *grumble* It actually showed up only a few times and those seemed to have been afterthoughts. *sigh* But it didn’t need the 3D to be great, right. Um…I could only wish. Let me make a comparison. After The Great Wall I wanted to give myself a break from seeing only movies to review and took in Fist Fight. I cannot get a break here. From the mediocre to the uninspired, to murder a cliché.
Here’s a two-word review of Fist Fight: “Meh. Unfunny.”
You’re welcome for the warning.
Mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are fighting their way to China in search of black power when they are captured by a party of Chinese warriors at the Great Wall and those plans are gone. Especially when shortly after their capture they are witness to an invasion by a green horde of creatures, trying to swarm up the wall and, apparently, kill every human they find. Now, the two Westerners must decide whether to join the fight or continue with their scheme to steal this deadly new weapon that could make them wealthy beyond their dreams. William tries to walk away, but cannot. Will his bow and his bravery be enough to help the Chinese army destroy this monstrous army so that it can never return? And will his actions be enough to redeem his violent, corrupt past? First, he must prove himself to the distrustful military leaders. And try not to break an ankle in any of the many plotholes.
The Great Wall is visually arresting and there are over eleven minutes of closing credits to prove it. Visual effects, matte painting, stunts, textures, ILM, Hybride, Ghost VFX, Base FX, and so many more that I won’t even attempt to make a fair sampling here, just believe me when I say that eleven plus minutes of credits is about four minutes more than the average animated film. I was starting to think they had slipped in some of the final Olympics credits. (The winner and still champion of all monster closing credits.)
The vision of the seemingly endless Imperial army is one of the most stunning crowd scenes ever produced on the big screen. With different color schemes in cloth and armour for each division and groupings of every division in place, shoulder to shoulder down the length of the wall in either direction — picture the blazes of blue, red, gold, against the image of the Great Wall, like deadly blooms waiting to strike. Beyond the wall is a verdant valley with rough, craggy sides that also looks to stretch on for miles beyond where human eyes could see. It is every lush tinge of Pantone’s Color of the Year 2013 ~ Emerald, as though the entire landscape was covered in various spongy mosses. Too bad the next shades of green to come through are the killing machines storming the wall and leaving a bloody wake. Looking down valley, there is no end to the surging mass. Another immeasurable army in another seemingly endless setting. Vast in every direction.
Damon does a creditable job in a disappointing film. Perhaps, the chance to star in the highest budget Chinese movie ever made ($150 million) and work with acclaimed director Yimou Zhang were enough to lure him into signing on to The Great Wall. I mean, hell, who among us wouldn’t? Those of us who already have an amazing career, an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and dozens of nominations for those BAFTAS, Emmys, and others! Those who don’t want to end up in the Razzies next year! Then again, he survived Stuck On You and I had my doubts about that. He is never going to do a half-assed job, but there is only so much one can do with a story like this.
Pedro Pascal (Narcos, GOT) is equally believable as his scoundrel partner intent on finding that black powder and getting filthy rich. His own Chilean accent fits in without raising any eyebrows; we may all be wrong, but we assume some form of Spaniard/Portuguese language or country existed back then. Let’s just stick with that. He is a talented actor and his is a high-profile part, so I’m not as amazed that he took the role. As for Willem Dafoe, even though he’s been in a couple of my favourite movies (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Odd Thomas), he’s starting to spread himself pretty thin. If he doesn’t watch out, he’ll become the white Samuel L. Jackson, waaaaayy overexposed. In this he digs into his craven bag and pulls out a character you just kinda want to feed to the green guys.
As is only fair in this film, it is some of the Chinese actors who draw out truly interesting characters. In this immense army, there is no separation among the ranks of males and females, no job too low for a man or too high for a female. General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) has a female second-in-command, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), one of the spectacular archers. Along with Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and three more commanders they make up the war council charged with keeping the monsters from breaching the wall and overrunning the capital city. Their intensity plays well even when the storyline runs to silly. Jing acts as the foil to Damon’s character, but the relationship is too predictable and she comes across as the film’s eye candy.
One character portrayal that succeeded where it could have gone seriously south is Peng Yong, portrayed by actor and singer Lu Han. An unappreciated kitchen worker who longs to be more, the slightest variation and he could have become a Chinese Mr. Yunioshi. His first appearance in the film was cringe-worthy, not because of his performance, but because there seemed no path for his character to follow but straight to dim-witted comic relief. Let your sphincters relax. Keep your eyes on Han; he is actually the most intriguing actor in the film. I’d like to see him in more English language films. Or, I’d like to wake up tomorrow speaking fluent Mandarin. One of those is more likely.
So. Recommendations. Other than, don’t bother? I know that’s not going to stop anyone who is dying to see it, although I have not come across a single person of that mindset, come to think of it. For the rest of you, then. Save your money on the 3D; the difference is negligible and definitely not worth the extra charge. If you see everything Matt Damon is in you’re not reading this, so never mind. If you want to see some impressive VFX, such as background textures and multiplying crowds, you may enjoy The Great Wall just for that reason. Maybe you just like Asian action movies? Nothing wrong with that. Don’t expect this to have the balletic grace of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger, though. If you want to see a good film with a good story where you won’t be bothered by giant niggling thoughts? Well, there will be hundreds more films out in 2017, just bide your time.