THE GREAT WALL
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han
MPAA Rating: (for sequences of fantasy action violence)
Running Time: 1:43
Release Date: 2/17/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 16, 2017
There is no lack of spectacle in director Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall. The movie's production design—from its recreation of the exterior and interiors of the eponymous structure to its imagining of period-appropriate weaponry to its boldly color-coordinated costumes—is impeccable, serving as cohesive piece of design that suggests genuine history and allows for the flourishes that are required for fantasy.
The movie is fantasy, of course, set in the 11th century. It opens with some text, informing us of the basic trivia of the wall (over 5,500 miles long and taking more than 1,700 years to build), before informing us that it was a means of protecting China from enemies—some known and others of legend. "This is one of the legends," the text proclaims.
The introduction to the wall and its workings is an extended sequence that causes one to perk up in one's seat. We see rows upon rows of soldiers, standing at the ready at one of the wall's gates, with archers perched upon a battlement waiting to let loose another volley of arrows. We pass through a great hall between lines of marching soldiers, as a messenger runs with important news.
Atop the wall, the army makes ready for battle, divided into different factions according to their tasks, wearing armor of bright pastels in accordance with their jobs. Drummers bang on large percussion instruments, twirling nunchaku-like batons in rhythm to signal orders across the expanse of the wall. Women dressed on bright-blue armor stand at the edge of beams that have extended from the top of the wall. An observer wonders, "What the hell do they do?" As it turns out, they do the neatest and, likely, most dangerous job of all the soldiers assigned here, as they grab their spears and take a leap of faith off the beams.
This is the kind of stuff that we expect from Zhang, who has a penchant for daring and colorful spectacle, and it's this that offers a gleaming glitter of hope in the early parts of the movie. The earlier section, which introduces one half of the story's duo of heroes, fades from memory, and we just take in the lavish sights and carefully staged choreography of an army doing unexpected things.
Those earlier scenes are ones to be forgotten. They introduce William (Matt Damon), a mercenary of uncertain nationality and even more unclear dialect, who is in China with a band of fellow, flagless soldiers looking for mysterious black powder, which can turn air into fire. They're chased by marauders, make camp at night, and are attacked by an unknown creature, which Williams kills before taking a trophy of its green, scaly hand. Only he and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), a Spanish mercenary, survive the attack. The two find themselves at the gate of the Great Wall.
The movie is a co-production of the United States and China, and it's one that is constantly, awkwardly dancing between the respective interests of its countries' audiences. In terms of pacing, the divide makes for strange scenes in which its Chinese cast will offer a piece of exposition in Mandarin and then it will be translated into English. There's a long scene of back story that Ballard (Willem Dafoe) translates for William and Tovar, as pieces of the story being told in Mandarin are subtitled on screen. One suspects that the version for American audiences is different from the one released in China (either that or audiences in China are going to wonder why so much important plot information is being told by English-speaking actors when it's already being related in Mandarin).
The more important part of this division is that the screenplay (written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy) provides two heroes whose stories are in constant competition for attention. The hero at the wall is Commander Lin (Jing Tian), one of the diving-spear women, who later rises to command of the wall. There isn't much to any of the characters here, but William, who eventually learns that fighting under a flag is better than fighting for greed, and Lin, who is in charge when the greatest threat to her nation and the world is under way, are the central protagonists. The screenplay leans a bit too much toward William's familiar arc.
Have I mentioned the threat yet? It appears not, so let's get to that. There are monsters—green, four-legged, and scaly things with long snouts and eyes on their shoulders. These are, according to the back story, the embodiment of greed, let loose on a corrupt emperor from the past. They're fairly bland beasts, with an army that consists of swarms of the generic, comparatively little guys, several bigger ones with armored crests around their heads, and a nasty queen. The best that can be said of them is that Zhang keeps them from being downright silly. They basically serve as target practice for William's arrows, Lin's spear, and the rest of the army's assorted weapons.
Once the monsters are introduced, The Great Wall falls into formula. The movie's most involving elements are entirely superficial, and as effective as those elements may be, they cannot stand an assault of routine action and bland characters.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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