The film industry, like all forms of art, must adapt with the times in order to survive. In recent years, that has meant one thing above all else: accepting that China is now a huge market to be tapped and vastly financially rewarding if done properly. Without Chinese success, we wouldn’t be getting a Pacific Rim 2 (that would make me a sad panda) and many films American & European audiences would consider flops (like Need For Speed, Gods of Egypt and Terminator Genysis) regained some dignity and profits thanks to The Dragon’s Country. It’s why we’re seeing so many big blockbusters carry story elements or characters designed to present such Eastern appeal. Now in The Great Wall, we have the first case of a film going all in on that concept: making an entire film targeted with Chinese appeal that the rest of the world might like too. It’s also a novel idea for a historical fantasy story but sadly though the wall may be great, the film isn’t.
As part of a bandit party trying to steal black powder William (Matt Damon – The Martian) and Pero (Pedro Pascal – Game of Thrones) stumble onto a colossal army of The Nameless Order across China’s Great Wall and become involved in there desperate fight against the monstrous creatures of the Tao Tie.
You may have already seen this film getting a dishonorable rap in the press, and that’s for good reasons. This film has some critical failures so big you could see them from space. Firstly, there’s story.... what little there is of it. The film presents itself like The Battle of Five Armies having skipped the rest of a trilogy, throwing audiences into large scale conflict with minimal content and context over what’s going on. Things improve a little once it gets going but it still frequently struggles for direction. The entire final act abandons the wall altogether and all the film’s strengths in the process for a messier climax than half the content of Pornhub (I’m guessing). Next up, there’s the terrible script. Now in its run-up, this film faced whitewashing accusations for being a Chinese set film starring a White American actor, and they were in fact completely unjustified. Damon, Pascal (and William Defoe’s Ballard) are the only Westerners on-screen, portrayed as foreign travelers with only two Chinese characters speaking English for translation. However, those involved seem deeply concerned that its audience would throw a tweeting Trump level strop over too much subtitling which leaves the central pair spending half their screen time narrating the ongoing action like the foreign commentary team sports event. It really doesn’t help endear their characters to us and feels incredibly lazy from a writing perspective. Even worse, when others actually get to converse and interact, the dialogue has all the life of dead cat being swung about to feign movement. The attempts at banter and lighter comedy moments barely manage the odd chuckle and the efforts to make a connection between William and Jing Tian’s (Kong: Skull Island) Commander Lin feel closer to Apollo 13’s square peg round hole problem.
Yet like the men and women of the Nameless Order, I’m going to mount a defense here because despite the cracks in its foundationsm The Great Wall does have some value in terms of spectacle courtesy of its visuals. This where we really get to feel that Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) is directing as the colourful, acrobatic forces and imaginative defenses of the army muster. Courtesy of the film’s amicable budget, we get to see scenes filled with hundreds of real extras at a time, looking stunning as they ready defenses sound tracked by the beats of mass drummers. The film also has a lot of fun around the idea of the wall itself being built as more of a functional fortress complete with vast inner workings to present as an entertaining fantasy remix of history. From the bungee diving spear maidens of the Crane Corps to the creatively-mounted trebuchets, there’s a lot to enjoy from seeing it all play out in battle. They may take William’s archery skills too far past ridiculous but the film’s set pieces are entertaining. However, there’s a still a problem here and that is the villains, the Tao Tie.
Firstly, they revolve around being a mass CG horde. That’s not a terrible thing but because visually the mass green hellhound-like ranks look far more generic and unappealing when compared to the human contingent their presence does lower the film’s appeal. It’s like they used all their imagination up on Nameless Order and just hashed something together for the Tao Tie. This is best summed up in their McGuffin-like (“kill her, stop them all”) queen. Just mentioning the idea of a creature army queen conjures imagery of the Xenomorph Queen or The Borg Queen, something unique and badass, looking commanding over everything else. This queen looks about as intimating as a green labradoddle. The film’s overall intention was clearly to merge the style and grace of Zhang Yimou’s past works with the BG-enabled scale of a big Hollywood blockbuster. Yet the result is less a perfect union of Eastern and Western cinema and more letting George Lucas re-master Hero. Even The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor achieved this better.
Although it’ll be pleasing for many to see Oberyn Martell again, none of the cast overly impresses and neither do the more familiar names perform at even half their potential. The film is a firm case of style over content. Its visuals and spectacle do have added value on the big screen (with some 3D assistance) so if you just want something eye-pleasing for a casual viewing, then The Great Wall might be built for you. For everyone else, it’s definitely been built to keep us out.
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