The Great Wall and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Picture and China Film Group
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Hey, Disney can’t be the ONLY company making all that money all over the world, right? Sure, they have Star Wars and Marvel on their side, but there’s certainly room for even more movies that go for a global audience. Hell, we’ve already got a few we can name off already like xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, Warcraft, or even the last loathsome Transformers movie which inexplicable set the third act in China. Still, this particular movie is something different as it’s a US/China co-production that is legitimately one of those instead of a Hollywood film that had some of it done in China. This is an acclaimed Chinese director with stars from his own country AND the US with financial backing from Universal and a script from Hollywood writers. Hell, the fact that this movie ACTUALLY has Chinese subtitles yet is STILL getting a wide release in the US is noteworthy in and of itself! Did all that effort ultimately pay off, or is this a lousy way to kick off this new era in filmmaking? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with William and Pero (Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal) running their ass off across the Gobi desert in hopes of outrunning the bandits chasing them and also finding out the secret to BLACK POWDER (i.e. gunpowder) from the Chinese once they find someone to ask about it. Unfortunately for them, they wind up at The Great Wall where a secret army of warriors assigned to guard the wall (how can they be secret if they’re base of operations can be seen from space?) and they aren’t too friendly to tourists. Fortunately for them (or maybe not so fortunately), they arrived on the EXACT DATE that an army of monsters that comes around every sixty years (I’m pretty sure they’re supposed to be aliens) are set to attack and try to break the wall down so as to siege the country behind it. Because of this, General Shao and the chief strategist Wang (Zhang Hanyu and Andy Lau) who run this secret military called The Nameless Order don’t have the time to lock them in a dungeon and so they get a chance to prove their worth by slicing up a few monsters as well. This gives them a brief stay of execution and even the respect of some of the members there including Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) and an ill prepared lower solider named Peng Yong (Lu Han). Of course, these newcomers ALSO get the attention of Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe) who’s… a prisoner I think? He came to China 25 years ago for BLACK POWDER as well, and I guess The Nameless Order just won’t let the dude leave; a fate that both William and Pero fear awaits them if they stick around too long. So it looks like they have a dilemma on their hands! Take what Black Powder the order has and leave them to fight on their own, or do what they can to help and hope they can finagle a way out once the dust has settled. Will they make the right choice in the end? What does the order have planned to fight this monstrous threat? How much were they hoping Matt Damon would bring in? A hundred million? Two hundred million?
It’s fine. The movie is perfectly fine. It’s nothing great which is kind of a disappointment considering how rare it is for a Chinese film to get a wide US release, but it’s still a lot better than some of the usual suspects in the blockbuster arena like Transformers, those Ninja Turtles movies, a few of the X-Men movies, and Batman v Superman. Honestly, what it calls to mind most are the Bruckheimer films which are still relatively popular nowadays, but were much bigger hits in the early and mid-2000s such as Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure. It’s a big bloated and ultimately shallow experience, but it manages to stay inoffensive and flashy enough that I think it’ll have a degree of mass appeal if US audiences can get past the fact that at least half of it has subtitles. It’s not something that I’ll probably even remember in a few months, and no one’s gonna care about this by the time it gets a home release, but I’ve certainly had worse times sitting through expensive set piece driven boom-a-thons.
Where this movie works is in sheer spectacle and in its rather light tone given the gravity of the premise. Make no mistake, people are getting killed ALL the time in this movie, and in pretty brutal ways considering the monsters’ goal is to chew them up and spit them out for their queen, but despite that it never really gets to a dark place like this premise could have gone to instead focus on how AWESOME everything is and to be as dignified as possible while doing it. Sure, everyone looks like they’re from a Dynasty Warriors game which is cool as hell, but the few times where things DO get serious is treated with reverence and nobility rather than horror or resignation. Hell, we spend five minutes on one dude’s funeral which is quite a sight to behold with everyone releasing paper lamps into the sky, even if the reason we’re seeing it is because the dude’s arm got ripped off by a monster’s gnashing teeth. Seriously, how good can these really intricate and ornate sets of armor be if EVERY monster can chew through them like tin foil? I guess that kinda misses the point if I’m asking questions like that, especially when the film has an all-female bungee jumping spear battalion on hand, and within its own exaggerated universe, it all works fine. The pieces are absolutely there for a fun and exciting action film, and to some degree it ended up working.
Now unfortunately what DIDN’T end up working was the script, and by extension the focus, pacing, and overall structure. Now we’ve seen this movie before, and I’m not just talking about it being a big budget spectacle showpiece. For months, the big controversy over this film was the inclusion of Matt Damon into a film that was made and primarily for a Chinese audience, but until we got to SEE the damn thing, it wasn’t clear if he was just another fighter in the war or if he was going to be the main character. Well… guess what folks. This is a movie (like The Road to El Dorado, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, or anything else in The Man Who Would Be King mold) where we have a main character being thrust into a civilization/conflict/whatever who instantly becomes the most popular person around and then has to decide whether to help them with whatever they’re fighting against or to loot them blind and seal their doom. Who wants to take a guess that THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON EVER is in this story? Yeah, so Matt Damon is exactly the kind of character that no one wanted him to be in this movie, and to a certain extent I don’t even think the filmmaker wanted it to be that way either. His role is absolutely vital to the plot simply because of how ingrained he is in many of the ways the plot is progressed (and how the action scenes are resolved), but him and his buddy Pero still manage to feel perfunctory in the grand scheme of things as their own quests and character arcs are about as textbook and cliché as you can find in one of these stories. The role that both of them, along with Willem Dafoe, have in this story would be fine if they weren’t the focus (like if they were three people in the Magnificent Seven) as they all deliver solid performances in this soap opera war movie with monsters, but because an inordinate amount of time is spent on them, they wear out their welcome rather quickly.
The rest of the movie feels like a Lord of the Rings style epic (in scope if not necessarily in quality) that was truncated to squeeze in that Matt Damon storyline so characters like Commander Lin Mae, Wang, Shao, and Peng Yong, have only about half as many scenes as they should. Well… may not so much Lin Mae who gets about three quarters of the scenes she should as she has about as much to do here as Matt Damon, but the movie really should have been ENTIRELY focused on her. It’s so much more her story as someone who’s been training her whole life for this mission and is thrust into a role of leadership when things have gotten their worst, but the story can only go so far as long as Matt Damon is the audience avatar and the focal point of the narrative. This also means that a lot of the world building and even some of the pertinent events are handled through exposition dumps from the supporting cast which doesn’t help the flow of the story all that much; especially when someone is very angry and makes a damning choice in one scene… but then someone else comes in five minutes later to say they changed their mind. Some of that might have been compensated if the villains were great, but they’re really not. They serve their purpose like any good zombie herd or Avenger’s evil army does, but they don’t exude personality or even real motivation beyond their animalistic desire for food. This is why most zombie films aren’t ACTUALLY about the zombies themselves and are merely a pressure point to watch what people would do when their backs are against the wall (nyuk-nyuk-nyuk).
I want to reemphasize what’s good about this movie as it’s not a terrible film or even a weak entry in its genre. Zhang Yimou knows how to point a camera and how to make a scene look as beautiful as possible which is better than the Michael Bay approach of assaulting the audience with an endless miasma of carnage and explosions. Sure, I liked the look of House of Flying Daggers better, but that was practically an art house movie while this is trying to reach an internationally broad audience (they NEED to considering how much money they sunk into it) so the aesthetic favors excessive spectacle rather than something more focused. Still, when the movie is firing on all cylinders, it’s a real triumph of filmmaking considering how many moving parts there are and how detailed and precise each character’s actions are; whether it’s the bungee jumping spear squad, the badass drummers, or those dudes spinning those rotating blades around that stick out of this Rube Goldberg machine of a 5500 mile barricade, there’s always something interesting to see on screen even if the dialogue you’re hearing isn’t all that great.
Look, we’re gonna be getting Power Rangers, another Transformer Movie, and Justice League this year, and it’s not like a lot of blockbusters don’t skate by on a weak script by filling the screen with lots of booms. This is just another one of those with the added bonus of being the first step in a much more globalized approach to filmmaking. For that alone it’s worth checking out, and while I DO hope this is a success so we get more US/Chinese blockbusters, let’s just hope the next one has a better script to go along with it.
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