The Great Wall *½ / *****
Directed by: Zhang Yimou.
Written by: Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy and Max Brooks and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz.
Starring: Matt Damon (William), Tian Jing (Commander Lin Mae), Willem Dafoe (Ballard), Andy Lau (Strategist Wang), Pedro Pascal (Tovar), Hanyu Zhang (General Shao), Lu Han (Peng Yong), Kenny Lin (Commander Chen), Eddie Peng (Commander Wu), Xuan Huang (Commander Deng), Ryan Zheng (Shen), Karry Wang (Emperor).
The last time a film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou was released on thousands of screens in North America, it was 2004, and the film was his action masterwork Hero – a film that had been nominated for the foreign language film Oscar two years prior, but that the studio had sat on since. In retrospect, Hero marked a definitive turning point for Zhang and his career. As part of the Fifth Generation group of filmmakers, Zhang had made several great films in the 1980s and 1990s – the content of which made them controversial in China. He had been moving away from that for a while when Hero was released – while his 1990 film Ju Dou was banned for a short time (and got a lot of people fire when they submitted it the Academy as China’s Foreign Language submission in 1990) and his follow-up, Raise the Red Lantern was submitted to the Academy by Hong Kong, not China, his 1992 film The Story of Qiu Ju was back as China’s submission – but Hero kind of cemented Zhang Yimou as one of the Chinese government’s favorite filmmakers. That film, which is an action masterpiece, is also very much a Nationalistic film (some have used harsher words to describe its politics) – and he has also directed the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics. So it certainly make a lot of sense that he would be the director to get to make The Great Wall – a co-production between China and Hollywood, starring Matt Damon, many Chinese stars, and a lot of special effects. The film tries to recapture the action brilliance of Zhang’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers (released later in 2004) – but unfortunately, it doesn’t come close. The film is another one in which the action sequences are basically a bunch of CGI soup, lacking in any real distinctive visual flair. The film is a fairly uneasy mix on a plot level as well – trying to find a way to make Matt Damon both the star of the film (White Savior would be going too far – but not by much), and as part of the collective – a message that is inherent in many Chinese films of this kind. The result is a confusing mess of a film.
In the film, Damon plays William – a European trader, who has come to China to get some “black powder” to make himself rich in Europe. His travelling companion is Tovar (Pedro Pascal) – and the movie tries very hard to make these two into bickering buddies, with no success (for the most part, it’s all just horribly awkward). The pair of them – being chased through China by some local hordes – come across the Great Wall, and are invited inside. Because they have killed something – that moved so fast they didn’t get a good look at it, but they do have its arm – they are not immediately killed. The people – the Nameless – serve the Emperor, and are China’s final defense against a horde of invading creatures – part dragon, part alien, part insect, etc. – which attack every 60 years. One of those things is what William had killed. While Tovar teams up with the only other white man at the wall – Ballard (Willem Dafoe) – to try and steal a lot of black powder, and flee (something Ballard has apparently been planning for 25 years – although his plan sucks) – while William finds his conscience, and decides to help fight off the horde. Whether he does so because he actually believes in the cause, or because the leader of the Nameless is Commander Lin (Tian Jing) – a stunningly beautiful woman, and the only woman person in the Nameless not wearing a helmet, probably because it would mess up her perfect hair is open for debate.
Damon is one of the best movie stars we have – someone who is effortlessly able to pull off the movie star persona thing. Oddly, here, his performance is more awkward then anything else. When the movie begins, he is hidden under matted hair and a bushy beard, and he’s doing the strangest accent this side of Shartlo Copley in Oldboy (or Jodie Foster in Elysium or Forrest Whitaker in Arrival or Tom Hardy in anything – take your pick) – and it takes a minute to register it’s even him. Even when he shaves, his performance lacks his normal charming swagger – in part because the dialogue is so awkward – but also in part because the movie tries to integrate him into the larger cast, but it doesn’t quite work. The movie isn’t quite the white savior narrative the films detractors feared when the first images (of just Damon) surfaced, but it’s not exactly not that either.
Still, had the action sequences worked, the rest of it would probably have been acceptable. Sadly, they really don’t. The CGI creatures are odd, but unmemorable (I’m writing this about 13 hours after the film ended for me, and I’m having a hard time picturing them in my mind). They swarm like insects – or the zombie in World War Z – working as a collective – which is what the people will need to learn how to win if they are going to win (yes, William and Lin kind of go it alone at the end – but it’s made possible by all the brave sacrifices made before then). Yet, the CGI sequences – especially in 3-D- all seemed overly fake to me. Strangely, the effects work here is far less convincing than it was in Hero – nearly 15 years ago - in part, that’s because Hero didn’t have creature – but even the sequences in which people hurtle themselves done huge bungee lines seemed off.