Review: The Great Wall (2016)

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Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

To answer the question right off the top that everyone’s probably wondering about — no. Matt Damon does not save China in The Great Wall. Oh, he has a great white hand in slaying the monster, but he doesn’t strike the lethal blow. That’s splitting hairs, sure, but hey. Baby steps.

If you haven’t already heard by now, The Great Wall is Hollywood studio Legendary East and state-owned China Film Group’s US$150 million fantasy epic that is supposed to mark the next chapter in Sino-US creativity and thrust the PRC to the fore of filmmaking superpowers. It’s easy to see what drew the CFG to Legendary: Parent company Legendary Pictures is the dubious mastermind behind Warcraft, Pacific Rim and Zack Snyder’s stellar oeuvre (okay, admittedly Legendary also produced little gems like The Town, Straight Outta Compton, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy). Regardless of what you think of their work, they have a strong box office record. For all its volume and the sheer number of screens, China’s film industry is still considered ‘art house’ outside of China, and Beijing really, really wants that to change.

Better luck next time guys.

The Great Wall isn’t bad, or inept. It’s directed by Zhang Yimou — he of Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers fame — so the filmmaking is competent and the images can be quite beautiful. Its biggest flaw is being unremarkable. Transplanting a creature feature to ancient China doesn’t make it less a creature feature, and we’ve seen them all before. Were it a more poorly constructed film it could have fallen into the so-bad-it’s-good category, but it’s not. And it’s not creative enough to be good. It just is.

The wall in question – and Yimou’s epic visual sensibilities

So here’s the deal: in an unidentified, temporally mysterious place and time in ancient China, the Great Wall was built and manned to protect the realm, nay the world, from the tao tei (the monster is actually pulled form Chinese mythology). As the film opens, the army’s current general is Shao (Zhang Hanyu, Assembly), standing sentinel over the mountainous terrain the tao tei emerge from every 60 (really, 60?) years. Assisting him in this noble quest is Wang (Andy Lau), a strategist, and Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian, Police Story 2013), one of the bungee jumping all-female squad that swan dives into the tao tei hordes when they approach. Each fighting unit is gorgeously colour-coded à la Zhang’s Hero — the archers are vibrant red, the weapons specialists are blingy gold, Lin’s jumpers are an otherworldly blue (which, you would think, only helps the tao tei see everyone better, but oh well). Zhang’s regular cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding and Stuart Dryburgh (Alice Through the Looking Glass) do a bang up job capturing the action, and they do an even better job of crafting single visual moments. It’s a shame they weren’t given much to say with them. The tao tei, for their part, are a lovely CGI hybrid of dinosaur-Orcs and xenomorphs. The key to killing them is in shooting them right in the eyes on their shoulders. Yeah.

Into this tense state of preparation stumble mercenaries William Garin (Damon) and his cantankerous, bottom-line focused partner Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal, sorely missed on Game of Thrones and the film’s standout) after fleeing a marauding tribe and tussling with a strange beast in the hills the night before. Garin was wise enough to keep the arm they lopped off the unseen creature, possession of which prevents their execution by Shao and Lin. At this point the tao tei launch an offensive nine days early (evidently they adhere to a strict schedule) and Garin and Tovar once again prove they can be trusted. Fortunately, the Wall’s armoury is stuffed with the ‘black powder’ Garin and Tovar were looking for in the first place. They hatch a plan to steal some and escape, with help from 25-year captive Ballard (Hollywood’s great ‘rat bastard’ signifier, Willem Dafoe) but wind up sticking around to save the world instead. You know how this works.

Zhang Hanyu (left) and Andy Lau (right) pondering next season’s military colours

The Great Wall is, at its core, a B-grade monster movie that’s been classed up by a dignified cast and a marquee director; think a PRC Doctor Strange. It provides all the spectacle fantasy geeks could ask for, but there’s little drama and no emotion beneath the surface; some of Zhang’s Curse of the Golden Flower-style fevered melodrama would be welcome. The script comes courtesy of Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and Tony Gilroy, who penned most of the Bourne series and co-wrote a little picture called Rogue One. But it’s the story credit that garners the most attention — and fear. Novelist Max Brooks’ zombie swarm from World War Z is replicated here, and his zombieland fingerprints are all over Wall. The other story credit goes to Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the producing/directing team behind culturally sensitive opuses such as The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond. Thankfully, they only provide a narrative framework and let Zhang’s images do the heavy lifting. Hoary warrior themes like duty, honour, trust and courage are all crammed into the thin story, usually concluding that Garin and his type are lesser men for fighting for the ‘wrong’ reasons (his are for food and survival, Lin’s are for the greater good and the trust of her fellow soldiers etc, etc). But that’s to be expected in a film where a typical exchange goes like this:

“Look at this army!”

“Have you ever seen anything like it?”

“It’s incredible.”

In fairness, that is no different than RAF pilots sitting around, declaring, “It’s about bloody time the Americans got into it!” with relief in Independence Day (the one that didn’t suck). But that’s more unconscious howler than mandated message — which are a must if Legendary, Fox, Warner or any other overseas studio wants to co-produce in China. The Great Wall isn’t going to kill anyone’s career (Damon often appears to be running lines for Ocean’s Eight in his head though) but it’s not going to be the global breakthrough Beijing expects.

5 flaming black powder balls out of 10.
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