A band of European mercenaries make their way across the vast Asian continent to China to find and seize the fabled “black powder.” But, after being chased down and decimated by hostile local tribesmen, only two, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), survive to face even greater dangers when they come upon “The Great Wall.”
Here, we have the case of a legendary director, Zhang Yimou, an international, money-making star, Matt Damon, a mega-budget (est. $150,000.000) and a high-tech production team assembled to craft what is, in the end, a dumb, overblown supernatural fantasy tale.
Let me get to the dumb-as-a-post yarn the many writers have carved out of somebody’s idea of a manufactured myth borrowed from a number of other films – “The Lord of the Rings,” “World War Z” and “Starship Troopers” come to mind, visually. The need to have a Caucasian hero in a predominantly other-culture-and-race story has been around since silent film times. Here, though, the hero’s arrival seems to precede Marco Polo’s own arrival to open trade with the East, arriving just as the empire is being threatened by hell’s spawn. (It would have helped if that hero actually spoke instead of reciting lines of script, as Damon does throughout the film.)
Okay, I did not like the story. That said, the production, with all lush visuals and bombastic sound design, is superb. The scale of the film, its masterful use of CGI and traditional film staples as costume, hair and make-up, is amazing to watch. Director Zhang shows his mastership in marshalling his capable cast and staging the copious action. The many battles with the swarming Tao Tei demons attacking the humans to feed their queen and spawn more demons are spectacular to look at.
Unfortunately, the sight and sound of “The Great Wall” are cheated of a better story to warrant the millions spent and the commitment of the filmmakers. I give it a C+.
Mercenary master archer William Garin (Matt Damon, giving Ben Affleck fuel for jokes for years to come) leads a band of Westerners through ancient China in search of their fabled black powder. Chased by desert tribes and attacked by an unknown beast who takes out all but William and Spaniard Tovar (Pedro Pascal, TV's 'Narcos'), the duo end up caught between those they've been running from and the Nameless Order, five regiments under General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) housed at Fortress City within "The Great Wall."
This Chinese American co-production directed by the great Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern," "Coming Home") and written by "Prince of Persia's" Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro and "Michael Clayton's" Tony Gilroy was obviously tailored for global audiences, a Hollywood movie star plunked into 1100 A.D. China to save the day. I'm sure Yimou, who stepped into this territory before with his Christian Bale starrer "The Flowers of War," intended to illuminate one of China's great legends, the Tao Tei monsters who emerge from Jade Mountain every 60 years to punish mankind for its greed. The resulting movie is like a highly derivative ("The Wizard of Oz" and "World War Z" to name but two) video game, a silly goof of a movie with outstanding production design (John Myhre, "X-Men: Days of Future Past"). It's not very good, but it sure is entertaining.
Shao, who is gearing up for a siege, initially imprisons the two men, but William has something to show him - the limb he hacked off the attacking beast and the magnetic stone found at their campsite. With Commander Lin (Jing Tian, the upcoming "Kong: Skull Island") acting as an interpreter (she's been taught English by Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a man they've had imprisoned for many years), Shao concludes that any man who could single handedly take out a Tao Tei must be a great warrior. Strategist Wang (Andy Lau, Yimou's "The House of Flying Daggers," who also played the same role as Damon's "The Departed" character in the film on which that was based, "Internal Affairs"), who has devised the Nameless One's incredible weaponry, is interested in the stone.
When the Tao Tei descend, William marvels at the Nameless Order's warfare. The golden outfitted Tiger Corps loads trebuchets to shoot long range fireballs over the wall (which fly at us in 3D). The red Eagle Corps man enormous repeating crossbows mounted to the wall. As the Tao Tei close in, Lin's all female blue Crane Corps walk out onto the wings of giant cranes attached to a flying rig by hoops. These acrobatic aerialists fly off to spear the beasts. When the Tao Tei drones clamber over the wall, the black suited Bear Corps engage in hand to hand combat. William steps in to save young soldier Peng Yong (Chinese pop star Han Lu), slaughtering many Tao Tei, the reluctant Tovar by his side. Despite the CGI sludge that is the rampaging Tao Tei (their scramble up the wall invokes "World War Z," whose novel's author, Max Brooks, has a story credit), this is one rousing sequence.
Beautiful, too, as is the image of hundreds of lanterns lofted into the sky when Shao succumbs to battle wounds, handing command over to Lin with his dying breaths. This scene will be echoed when, after Lin discovers a wall breach which has allowed the Tao Tei to head towards the capital, home of the 17 year old Emperor (15 year-old pop star Junkai Wang), she leading troops on hot air balloons.
The film's main trajectory is William's change of heart, the mercenary inspired by Lin towards more heroic impulses as Tovar and Ballard plot to steal the Nameless Ones' gunpowder and escape. Damon, speaking in that serious-as-death, halting English from costumers of yore, has been scruffed up for period's sake and convinces in action scenes. Better is the untested Tian, a petite yet fiery warrior. But the film's real star is its lavish production. Locations include such breathtaking sights as the Painted Mountains. Sets, props and costumes are glorious, the primary colors of the regiments and the stained glass of the Imperial Palace Pagodas reminding us of Yimou's own "Ju Dou." If only the Tao Tei were a bit more convincing. The Drones and the larger Paladin who protect their Queen resemble something out of "Jurassic Park" crossed with "Beetlejuice."
If you don't take it seriously, "The Great Wall" is great fun.
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