‘The Great Wall’ movie: Zhang Yimou-Matt Damon collaboration evidence that – for better or for worse – countries can work together
In this divisive age, when countries are turning inward with a nationalist, xenophobic fervor, it’s comforting to know that the United States and China, their relationship mercurial and wary, can work together and, in the spirit of cooperation and unity, make a terrible movie. A co-production between Legendary East (the Chinese arm of Burbank, California-based, Legendary Entertainment) and China Film Group, The Great Wall is reportedly the most expensive film ever shot in China, a nation with aspirations to make films that rival Hollywood in their scope and success.
Hollywood is willing to help if it ultimately leads to the release of more of its films in the tightly controlled Chinese market, currently the second largest film market in the world.
There is, in other words, much riding on the performance of The Great Wall, as a web of corporations, production companies, movie theater chains, and financiers in both countries sweat out critical reaction and box office results.
Zhang Yimou at stake
And yet the real victim if The Great Wall ultimately underperforms, the one film lovers should care about, is its Chinese director, Zhang Yimou.
The revered Fifth Generation auteur hasn’t had a hit since House of Flying Daggers in 2004. A depressing thought considering 2017 is the 30th anniversary of Zhang’s debut film, Red Sorghum, which launched a magnificent run of emotionally opulent dramas including Ju Dou (the first Chinese film ever nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) and Raise the Red Lantern.
He’s now known primarily as a director of wuxia films like Hero (a previous “most expensive film” in Chinese history) and Flying Daggers, action fantasies where the swooping and swooning of characters in battle are, at times, matched in intensity by the swooping and swooning of characters in emotional extremis.
Zhang’s gifts, alas, aren’t required for something as silly as The Great Wall, an overstuffed and, at times, nonsensical 12th century monster movie that fails to announce China as a major Hollywood rival or advance its concepts of collectivism and individual sacrifice.
‘Dreadfully ill at ease’ White Savior
The film’s troubled end was foreshadowed by its troubled beginning. Upon learning that the very American Matt Damon would play the film’s lead, Sino audiences feared The Great Wall was about a brave, white hero saving the Chinese from angry monsters laying siege to their country’s most recognizable landmark.
Their complaints, ignorant of the fact that Damon’s popularity in both China and America were a hedge against financial failure, were misdirected. The real problem is that Damon looks dreadfully ill at ease in this role, as if conscripted by the Chinese government to appear in the film in lieu of prison.
His body is constrained by his armor and his soft, suburban face suggests the annoyed look of a man struggling to dislodge his sports bottle from underneath the passenger seat of his Dodge Caravan. His charisma operates at a low hum, like he’s sauntering his way around the action, instead of punching his way through it. He is, to put a fine point on it, the wrong actor for this role.
Damon himself has been trying to skirt the “white-washing” charge by arguing that his character, William Garin, is an English mercenary – an odd claim considering the opening titles announce the story as a “legend,” meaning the role could have been played by anybody.
Awkward-accented mercenary vs. the Taotie
So here’s Matt Damon, his awkward accent coming and going like the billowing puffs of dirt along the dusty red plains of Northern China where we first meet Garin and fellow mercenary Tovar (Pedro Pascal, comic relief in a film that doesn’t need comic relief).
Captured by a military garrison and brought to an outpost along the wall, their lives are spared when they produce the severed arm of a green, scaly creature that looks alarmingly familiar to their Chinese captors.
The creature is a Taotie and every 60 years countless hordes of them emerge from the nearby Jade Mountain and attack in vicious, rampaging, unstoppable stampedes. There are thousands of Taotie, possibly millions – so many that the question of whether they’ll succeed in overtaking China is dwarfed by the question of how they’ll be disposed of if they don’t.
The wall, we are told, was built to keep these monsters out of the country, making this film perfect for Donald Trump’s first White House movie night as inspiration and research for his proposed border wall with Mexico.
Tasked with keeping these overdesigned beasts from advancing deeper into China are tens of thousands of elite, color-coded troops stationed along the wall. They are, collectively, The Nameless Order (which, if you think about it, is a name), an anonymous bunch played by top draw Chinese talent including Zhang Hanyu, Andy Lau (House of Flying Daggers) and ex K-pop idol Lu Han, whose character, a timid soldier turned valiant warrior, proves to be the only one with a heartbeat.
More unhelpful American contributions
As the Taotie attack in wave after mind-numbing wave, we realize that the screenplay, pockmarked by ear-shredding bits of modern verbiage, is another American contribution to The Great Wall that does the movie no favors. It was co-written by Tony Gilroy (who did a much better job fixing up Rogue One), and Narcos’ Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, from a story by the odd trio of Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz.
Their primary accomplishment is making sure the audience doesn’t care a whit about any of these characters. Even the jolt of hope that Garin will create some sparks with the beautiful Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) is a hope unfulfilled. Instead, she satisfies her propagandistic role by convincing William to ditch his me-first attitude and fight for the good of the group, while Tovar and Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a longtime prisoner of the fortress, plot their escape.
‘Too much effort for too little result’
Lin is also the leader of the Crane Corp, one of the more visually arresting, if tactically dubious, units charged with holding back the Taotie. Prior to the film’s first apocalyptic skirmish, our anticipation is stoked as rattling, clanking winches reveal a quintet of diving, board-shaped platforms.
Tethered to the top of the wall, members of the all-female Crane Corp walk to the edge of the platform, dive down, spear any nearby Taotie, and snap back to safety. It seems too much effort for too little result, much like the movie itself, especially when there are reams of soldiers armed with spears, bows, and catapults standing atop the wall.
‘The Great Wall’: Evidence the Chinese film industry can waste as much money & talent as Hollywood
Indeed, The Great Wall relies too much on flashy visuals and mindless action, the inevitable result of a film under pressure to appeal to too many people across too many time zones – a problem China now shares with modern Hollywood. But seeing Zhang operate with the mercenary efficiency of a for-hire hack is disheartening.
A funereal shot of Chinese paper lanterns, stripped of its simple beauty, drowns in digital manipulation. Even the Taotie, their existence rooted in Chinese mythology, are robbed of their cultural authenticity – they’re just another bunch of weightless, CGI monsters.
The Great Wall was to serve as proof that China can match Hollywood in creating polished, big budget, effects-laden entertainment. In the end, it doesn’t prove how much China can spend on a movie, it proves how much China can waste on one.
The Great Wall (2016)
Director: Zhang Yimou.
Screenplay: Tony Gilroy. Carlo Bernard. Doug Miro.
Story: Max Brooks. Edward Zwick. Marshall Herskovitz.
Cast: Matt Damon. Jing Tian. Pedro Pascal. Willem Dafoe. Andy Lau. Eddie Peng. Numan Acar. Han Lu. Kenny Lin. Vicky Yu (a.k.a. Yu Xintian).
Bing Liu (a.k.a. Raina Liu). Zhang Hanyu. Ryan Zheng (a.k.a. Zheng Kai.) Johnny Cicco.
The Great Wall cast info via the IMDb.
The Great Wall trailer, and Jing Tian and Matt Damon The Great Wall images: China Film Group Corporation / Universal Pictures / Legendary East.