Film Review: Zhang Yimou's "The Great Wall" is the first English language feature shot entirely in China
"Tell the world what you have seen," a character exclaims in "The Great Wall," ''and what is coming!"
The warning is about the mythical mass of marauding monsters that are sweeping down northern China but it could just as easily be for the kind of Hollywood-China collaboration that is "The Great Wall." The first English language feature shot entirely in China, it's the biggest-budget attempt yet to straddle both sides of the Pacific, plucking a movie star (Matt Damon) from the West for a production in the East. In a movie industry where the two biggest markets are North America and China, it's Hollywood's version of having your cake and eating it, too.
But if "The Great Wall" is a forerunner to the cross-cultural blockbustering to come, we may have just as much reason to flee as those being hounded in the film by the Taotie. Those are the four-legged, man-eating creatures of ancient Chinese folklore that are here attacking the Great Wall and the armies that defend it, as the Taotie are said to do every 60 years. They're the Halley's Comet of demons.
With acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou directing and Damon starring, "The Great Wall" would seem to at least promise to be an intriguing artifact, a movie that would, even in failure, illustrate something interesting about the culture clash it's predicated on. But it turns out to be little more than a monster movie (and a poor one at that) that says more about corporate-driven global moviemaking than anything about either culture. It, after all, originated as a thinly sketched conceit of Thomas Tull, the former chief executive of the now Chinese-owned Legendary Entertainment.
Six writers are credited for the script and story, which centers on a medieval Irish mercenary, William Garin (Damon), who has come to the Gobi Desert in search of "black powder," that is, early explosives. Though many feared Damon's character was another example of Hollywood's fondness for "white saviors," he is less a heroic protagonist than an audience stand-in for a lavish pageant celebrating Chinese values and valor.
Garin and his Spanish partner, Tovar (Pedro Pascal of "Game of Thrones"), are captured by a group of elite warriors dubbed the Nameless Order whose fortress lies along the Great Wall. They are prisoners initially, but they prove their worth in battle during the first Taotie attack and are subsequently, and somewhat reluctantly, drafted into the epic fight.
The teaming army along the exaggerated, heightened wall is a vibrant swirl of color and choreography. Yimou has long known how to dazzle with movement and historical sweep, notably in films like "House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero." He was also the director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, and there's a sense that his earlier, feistier art-house days ("To Live," ''Raise the Red Lantern") have given way to a cozier relationship with the Chinese government — and that the films have suffered for it. The whiff of propaganda surrounding "The Great Wall" only adds to the trend.
Yimou's images are almost entirely computer generated in "The Great Wall." For all the attention to its China-set production, the film feels like it takes place nowhere but in a rather dim digital realm that often appears like a knockoff of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth, complete with orc-like beasts.
Few characters emerge out of the blur. General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) presides over the Nameless Order, but it's Jian Tian's Lin Mae who most resonates. She's part of an acrobatic group of warriors who bungee jump off the wall to spear the Taotie. Garin watches her in awe, and quite rightly realizes he's out of his depth.
But the film altogether isn't well stitched together. Characters appear largely as cardboard cut-outs. The pacing is frantic. There's surprisingly little sense to the entire ordeal as Lin Mae and Garin fight to stave off the monster hordes.
"The Great Wall," in the end, bridges worlds only by that sad commonality we all share: the disappointment of a bloated, half-baked blockbuster.
"The Great Wall," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "for sequences of fantasy action violence." Running time: 104 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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