Despite the advertising that makes it look like Bourne in China, The Great Wall is best considered as the latest action spectacle from Zhang Yimou.
After more than a dozen years of crafting finely-honed, modestly-produced dramas such as Raise the Red Lantern and The Road Home, Zhang came under fire for abandoning the art house circuit to make Hero, starring Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi and Donnie Yen. In the wake of the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film sounded like a rip-off, featuring martial arts fighting and battles between massive armies.
Zhang, however, applied his cinematic artistry to the familiar tale. Hero, followed by House of Flying Daggers, showcased the rarely-utilized possibilities for blockbusters. Zhang’s flamboyant use of color looked absolutely spectacular when multiplied by visual effects and spread across a widescreen vista.
The deliberate pace of Zhang’s blockbusters are very effective in a theatrical setting, the better to appreciate the play of color and detail. The director next made Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, followed by Curse of the Golden Flower, a fabulous one-two punch that contrasted a simple drama with a visually elegant period picture.
His contributions to the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games, held in Beijing, were, again, spectacular. After that, he remade the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple as A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, a bold attempt that fell short, and made the historical war movie The Flowers of War starring Christian Bale, a rather dull and plodding affair.
Now comes The Great Wall, arriving in the U.S. amid accusations of ‘whitewashing.’ Reportedly budgeted at $150 million, the film certainly reflects the money spent, especially in the higher quality of the visual effects, which revolve around an army of CG monsters that attack every 60 years.
Because it’s not based on a pre-existing property, one imagines a Hollywood star was a prerequisite and so we have Matt Damon on hand. He plays William, a European trader in company with his longtime business partner Tovar (Pedro Pascal). Along a trade route one day, William and Tovar encounter a strange sort of beast that William manages to kill. They approach the Great Wall, where their motives come under serious fire by the massive armed forces that are assembled there. Soon enough, they are marked for death, but before that can transpire, the wall comes under attack by thousands of monstrous beasts.
Having acquitted themselves well in battle, William and Tovar are begrudgingly accepted by the large army. They learn that Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a grizzled character, has been stuck there for 25 years, and they do not wish to share his fate, but they must bide their time.
Ballard taught English to Commander Lin (Jing Tian), so she serves as William’s translator and guide. William is more open to his new surroundings than Tovar, which affects how they each respond as the valley below the wall keeps filling with monsters.
The armed forces at the wall are led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), with Commander Lin as his second-in-command — she commands an all-female regiment of warriors — and his other commanders include Wu (Eddie Peng), Chen (Kenny Lin), and Deng (Huang Xuan). Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) provides expert military advice in a senior role.
Though William provides a couple of key strategic suggestions, he only becomes more central to the battle planning because of attrition. The troops are all dedicated, loyal and obedient to their commanders; there are no cowards on the wall. Commander Lin’s respected position is notable, especially as far as diversity is concerned. Really, when thousands of monsters are attacking, all that matters is teamwork and individual courage.
The screenplay is credited to the writing duo of Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, and also Tony Gilroy, the latter of whom is responsible for writing the Bourne movies. The story is credited to Max Brooks (?!), Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. The collaborative effort is very well structured and the timely comic relief certainly comes in handy when things threaten to become too dark.
Truth be told, I was ready to suffer through a lackluster affair when I sat down for The Great Wall. It definitely far exceeded my admittedly modest expectations and made me glad I’d seen it on a big screen.
The film is now playing in theaters throughout Dallas.