Perhaps The Great Wall might have been a better movie if it had one of China’s smaller architectural marvels as a backdrop. If director Zhang Yimou had make a film about just the Great Wall itself and had not bothered with lifeless characters and unconvincing special effects, the results would have been superior.
That last sentence might sound like hyperbole, but if you’ve seen any of Zhang’s previous movies, he’s made some amazing films that seem just as outlandish. To Live was an engrossing look at the cost of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and Hero and House of Flying Daggers proved that martial arts movies could be as smart and dramatically satisfying as they are thrilling.
Unfortunately, The Great Wall doesn’t appear to have been directed but is instead clumsily assembled by a committee. There are six screenplay and “story by” credits, so the story is a mess. Character motives are sketchy, and the evocation of Imperial China is gorgeous but baffling. Novelist Max Brooks (World War Z), director Ed Zwick (Glory) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) have all contributed to the material, but it’s hard to tell what if anything they’ve contributed.
As it stands, The Great Wall involves a pair of European mercenaries named William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) who have journeyed for years to obtain gunpowder, which is still unavailable in the West. After narrowly escaping some bandits, the two wind up being the only survivors when a creature attacks them at night. William manages to kill the beast and keep its leg as a trophy.
When William and Tovar arrive at the Great Wall after running from another set of bandits, the defenders understandably distrust them. Nonetheless, they recognize the leg as belonging to a tao tei, and they know the dragon-like creatures, who are roughly the size of a lion, are difficult to kill.
This helps explain why the Great Wall has an overwhelming arsenal of weapons and has both female and male warriors ready to stab, shoot and club any tao tei that dares to near the wall. These critters are so fierce that every able bodied person must fight them. The tao tei can communicate over long distances like insects and can learn from mistakes.
This puts them ahead of some human combatants.
William is an exceptionally good archer, so Commander Lin (Tian Jing) overcomes some of her mistrust of the foreigners and has William and Tovar join her the rest of the defenders.
It’s ironic that the tao tei is a warning against greed in Chinese mythology. The monster has such a voracious appetite that it eats other tao tei and even itself. Those parts of the moral are repeated by the Chinese characters in the film, but the movie itself is a troubling monument to excess. Lin’s Unknown order has thousands of members, and they aren’t fighting a mere pack of tao tei.
It’s more like the biblical locust plague.
The sheer number of combatants actually makes the battle scenes numbingly dull. There’s a feeling of “oh, I guess they killed another one.”
It certainly doesn’t help that the tao tei look as if they’ve broken out of a Nintendo Wii system. One almost wonders if Damon should switch from a bow or a sword to a controller. With history already being ignored, it wouldn’t seem that implausible in this environment. Zhang, who started his career as a cinematographer, has staged several breathtaking combat scenes in the past, but he seems more at home with humans duking it out instead of dragons with eyes in their shoulders.
Willem Dafore plays another European named Ballard, who has been stuck in the Great Wall trying to collect gunpowder 25 years before. Dafoe sticks with his American accent, but Damon adopts a drawl that impossible to determine. Is he Irish or English, or just trying to pass for anything other than a Massachusetts native? It makes any utterance he delivers annoying.
Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong movie that inspired The Departed) is a major star in China and a terrific actor, but you’d never know it watching him look grim as Strategist Wang. The script, which seems like a William S. Burroughs copy and paste experiment, doesn’t give any of the thespians much room to work.
Perhaps some tao tei should have dined on the many drafts of the script. They might have nibbled away at all the needless appetizers that keep viewers from enjoying the main course.
The Great Wall (2017) Directed by Zhang Yimou Written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. Starring: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng, Xuan Huang
4 out of 10