‘I’ ON CULTURE
Unfortunately, The Great Wall is a great disappointment. Matt Damon has done some excellent action movies. Director Zhang Yimou is the force behind some fascinating Chinese movies. This film was supposed to be the big breakout movie for Chinese cinema; its first true blockbuster. Instead it’s more like Jurassic Park with subtitles and less real tension.
William Garin (Damon) is supposed to be a 12th-century Irish adventurer who wanders into China (forget about the idea that Marco Polo was the first European there centuries later). He is wandering around northwestern China searching for a rumored powder that will explode: black powder. It would be a great tool in a battle, “turning night into day.” He and his sidekick Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are attacked by a huge beast. They don’t actually get to see much (part of the obvious setup), but are able to cut off one of the beast’s claws. Right after that they wind up at the Great Wall of China, where they take shelter with a huge army, the Nameless Order. We see a lot of that wall, although having been there, I would make a bet that quite a lot is computer-generated or simply built (in small sections) for the film.
At any rate, the Europeans join the group led by Commander Lin (Jing Tian), the all-female Crane Corps, part of the huge army dedicated to stopping the horror from beyond the wall. For historical accuracy, the wall was built to stop wandering tribes from invading from the north, and it failed miserably (think Genghis Kahn). However, in the film, it has been reborn as a barrier against the Taotie, huge man-eating, intelligent dinosaurs that travel in packs and threaten the sanctity of China.
All through this, William and Tovar look for ways to smuggle out the black powder, which will make them very powerful in areas that don’t have the material. But the main core of the movie is the battle against the Taotie. The camera lingers on the complex weaponry, the massive catapults that fire blazing cannonballs, some of them with spikes. We see what looks like Cirque du Soleil archers, all in beautifully matched costumes, firing harpoons. There are huge scissors reaching out from the walls to tear the monsters apart. A lovely touch are the diving boards used by the Cranes to bungee jump with spears right into mobs of the invaders so they can kill them and quickly be hoisted away. The effects are dazzling.
But the story, unfortunately, is predictable. Early on, the Europeans are shown special arrows that have flutes attached to them. That way if the Taotie is hit, every time it breathes, you hear the noise. After all, they are told, what happens if you wind up on a foggy battlefield and can’t really see much? Not much later, surprise, they are on one of those fields and hear a flute.
That is the level of the plot. Zhang is noted for social commentary (he directed the fantastic Raise the Red Lanterns), here he is the manager of a hokey plot. He, happily, avoided the common usage of wise Europeans leading not-all-that-bright Asians. He reverses it, so that the Europeans learn from the wise Chinese.
Actually, that becomes a major point within the film. William is asked by Commander Lin who he’s fought for, and he goes through a long list. It is clear that she believes in fighting for her people rather than simply for nothing. The Westerners are there to admire the wisdom, skill and advances of the Chinese. And, of course, we get to experience the incredible courage of that huge army.
It is clear that the Europeans are there mainly so that Damon’s star power can bring in a far larger audience. Most Chinese films do not do well outside Asia. He has no trouble with the action scenes, but I noted that his accent did seem to float around a bit. Pascal was quite amusing as his steadfast sidekick, and Willem Dafoe was good in a smaller role as a bad guy. Jing Tian was very good in a part that was somewhat limited emotionally, but she is a strong actress who will be seen in Western films coming out soon.
This is basically a special-effects vehicle. If you like that sort of thing, go see it. For most of us, we should wait until it’s available on television.