REVIEW: The Great Wall [2016]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★


Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 103 minutes | Release Date: December 16th, 2016 (China)
Studio: China Film Group Corporation / Universal Pictures
Director(s): Yimou Zhang
Writer(s): Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy /
Max Brooks and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz (story)

“I’m honored to be honored”

The Great Wall of China took centuries to become what it is today. Construction began as early as 7th century BC with portions strengthened, rebuilt entirely, or expanded upon from the days of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang to the Ming Dynasty where most of what remains originated. It’s 5,500 miles of wall, trenches, and natural barriers—a fortification that protected its land from invasions and allowed a sense of control over trade and immigration. It’s bandied about as a “Wonder of the World” (although on unofficial lists expanding beyond the classic seven), its visibility from space a hotly contested item to bolster its mystique. And now it’s pretty much a tourist attraction, a landmark of history to be cherished if not used for its original intent.

So why not add a little flavor twenty-eight centuries later? Why not manufacture a race of creatures known as the Tao Tei (a play on the taotie motif immortalized on bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou dynasties)? Suddenly this mysterious design thought to be a common artistic pattern or religious iconography depicting shape-shifting creatures is given life as a monstrous manifestation of greed relentlessly terrorizing the Chinese empire every sixty years. As man grows hubristic and covetous, the Tao Tei evolve in terrifying ways—the discovery of black powder fueling this current growth under Emperor Renzong. The desire of China to kept this weapon as a means of power and foreign mercenaries arriving to steal it provide the Tao Tei reason to remind humanity of its place.

This is the conceit of The Great Wall, the most expensive Chinese film shoot ever at $135 million. Its genesis began with Max Brooks and continued through Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. From there it went to Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro for a script before Tony Gilroy arrived to polish things off and supply director Zhang Yimou his launching point. To look at those names is to see six Americans responsible for creating a fantastical world steeped in Chinese lore: problem number one. To look at the lead character and see Matt Damon as “white savior” is problem number two. Yimou probably wouldn’t have received the budget to do what he wanted scale-wise without these things, but maybe that’s a sign the project wasn’t worth his time.

That’s not to say the final result wasn’t financially successful. It nearly doubled its budget on international receipts alone before making it stateside. It’s fared much worse here with only $35 million in two weeks, but nobody expected better considering it’s a far cry from great regardless of the racial/cultural backlash. Watching the trailers has you believing you’re about to view a self-serious, overwrought visual epic. You know it won’t reach the heights of the director’s Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but hope it’s at least as pretty as another misstep, Curse of the Golden Flower. Yet while it is attractive (save the obvious green screen work that might have been augmented by seeing it in 2D), the tone falls closer to the side of camp.

This wouldn’t necessarily be bad if it embraced and owned that cheese factor. But that’s not what The Great Wall does. It instead tries to force itself into being an adventure with stakes and character development. We’re supposed to care about William’s (Damon) friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal) beyond him simply being a devil’s advocate and reminder of who they both are (thieves and killers). We’re supposed to care about Willem Dafoe‘s Ballard, a man who’s lived twenty-five years on the wall teaching Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) English despite proving nothing more than an opportunist seeking escape with the means of presenting William a choice between self-preservation and altruistic heroism. We’re definitely not supposed to realize both are merely here to ensure Damon isn’t the only non-Chinese actor.

William is an expert bowman, something Commander Mae and General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) desperately need in this fight. The battle itself has come early and everyone who second-guessed Strategist Wang’s (Andy Lau) warnings that the Tao Tei were getting smarter embarrassedly concede he was correct. The film then sets up a need for courage as evidenced by young Peng Yong (Lu Han), a boy trying so hard to overcome his fear of death. It’s obvious that he’ll have a chance at redemption, much like everyone else involved. Mae is the stalwart who will die for China and the rest rally around her with Wang grabbing hold of the not so subtle inclusion of a hunk of magnet to conjure an advantage over their foes. Will William and Tovar help?

William’s a mercenary for hire who’s used to being tied up as prisoner, but the writers aren’t interested in delving further to discover if he always was. At least Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl gave Jack Sparrow some complexity for us to be uncertain. We’re never worried that William will leave these people high and dry. We’re never worried that they won’t band together to find a way to prove victorious either. What we do receive is visual splendor trying hard to hide its myriad story shortcomings. Don’t acknowledge that Ballard and Tovar are useless besides giving Mae a reason to speak English and William a shallow crisis of conscience. Don’t acknowledge the massive death count leaving the two leads virtually unscathed throughout.

Bask in the artistry and be entertained. Zimou ultimately does what he can to make a weak script look great. The colors and costumes are gorgeous, the acrobatics of women in blue twirling off the wall to spear Tao Tei is exhilarating, and the stained glass windows of the towers climbed during the climax a beautiful setting for a hive mind villain stand. Forgive Damon for whatever Celtic accent he’s trying to achieve and disregard the fact that the Tao Tei and flying balloon rafts never seem integrated to their surroundings and just have fun. I laughed at moments both intentional and unintentional, enjoyed watching idiots die and heroes sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Does it add up to anything? No. Substance is nowhere to be seen.

In the end the film has the potential for one great byproduct: a concept art book. From the palaces to the wall to the weaponry and wardrobe, everything is extremely detailed and meticulously planned for effect. But what’s better is the character design of the Tao Tei. They don’t look great onscreen or necessarily set themselves apart from other hoard trope warriors serving a queen (save having them feed her like a baby bird), but the way in which the taotie design is incorporated into their heads is pretty cool. The motif itself looks like a face serving as an armor-plated distraction to protect eyes set farther back—an important shield considering their death comes instantly once those eyes are punctured. It’s a nice art history retrofit.


photography:
[1] Global superstar MATT DAMON is William Garin in Legendary’s “The Great Wall.” Directed by one of the most breathtaking visual stylists of our time, Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”), the film tells the story of an elite force making a valiant stand for humanity on the world’s most iconic structure. The first English-language production for Yimou is the largest film ever shot entirely in China. “The Great Wall” also stars Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe and Andy Lau. It will be released in 3D by Universal Pictures. Photo Credit: Jasin Boland Copyright: © 2017 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] JING TIAN is Commander Lin Mae in Legendary’s “The Great Wall.” Starring global superstar Matt Damon and directed by one of the most breathtaking visual stylists of our time, Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”), the film tells the story of an elite force making a valiant stand for humanity on the world’s most iconic structure. The first English-language production for Yimou is the largest film ever shot entirely in China. “The Great Wall” also stars Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe and Andy Lau. It will be released in 3D by Universal Pictures. Photo Credit: Jasin Boland Copyright: © 2017 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[3] WILLEM DAFOE is Ballard in Legendary’s “The Great Wall.” Starring global superstar Matt Damon and directed by one of the most breathtaking visual stylists of our time, Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”), the film tells the story of an elite force making a valiant stand for humanity on the world’s most iconic structure. The first English-language production for Yimou is the largest film ever shot entirely in China. “The Great Wall” also stars Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal and Andy Lau. It will be released in 3D by Universal Pictures. Photo Credit: Jasin Boland Copyright: © 2017 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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