Zhang Yimou’s ‘The Great Wall’ offers pretty but hollow fun

By Douglas Davidson

February 18, 2017

Famed director Zhang Yimou (Hero / House of Flying Daggers) brings the flourish and beauty of Chinese cinema stateside with The Great Wall, a tight action-packed fantasy adventure starring Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, and Andy Lau. Those familiar with Yimou’s previous work will see bits of inspiration throughout Wall, but that’s not enough to make it what it tries to be – a soaring epic depicting great struggle against fantastical creatures. It doesn’t help that the marketing for Wall’s been mired by accusations of Damon’s William as an unnecessary “white savior,” which inevitably casts a dark (or maybe pale?) pallor over the film. That said, The Great Wall does offer popcorn fun, but nothing as memorable as Yimou’s prior work.

The film opens six-months into William (Damon) and Tovar’s (Pascal) journey to seek out black powder, a substance rumored to be immensely powerful and capable of helping them gain wealth and power. Tired, hurt, and on the run from a local tribe, the duo find themselves at the gate of the Great Wall of China where soldiers throw them in jail. Claiming to be traders, they are just about to be sent to a jail cell when dangerous beasts begin to attack, sending the Wall’s numerous forces into action, while putting the duo on the sidelines. Intrigued by both Commander Lin Mae (Jing) and the origin of the beasts, William tries to help the forces fend off the creatures before they can destroy China.

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Matt Damon as William courtesy of Universal Pictures

From the jump, The Great Wall showcases all the markers of an epic adventure: the music pounds with the sound of drums, the camera flies across a barren yet warm landscape, and men are mid-chase on horseback across rocky terrain. Once at the Great Wall, the costume and set design maintain the grandiose feel through brightly colored armor – denoting individual defense teams – and attack weaponry appearing from hidden crevasses built into the Wall. The escalation of events attempts to remind viewers that there are large stakes at play and, while clearly fantasy, the events that unfold are to be taken quite seriously. This works to great effect in Hero, Yimou’s 2002 Jet Li feature, where each major scene maintained a signature color to communicate both mood and subtext. Here, however, the colors serve only to help audiences distinguish one set of soldiers from another. Though this is helpful when the chaos of battle begins, it adds nothing else to the narrative; a glaring difference from the expectation Yimou’s prior work establishes. Similarly, while the defense systems are frightful in their power, the logic required to maintain each barricade falls apart under scrutiny. It doesn’t help that the narrative and characterizations frequently undercut any real significance that Yimou wants to entrench within the story.

To populate this world of soldiers and monsters, Yimou commendably assembled an international cast. Though largely a Chinese cast, the film takes a hit by placing Damon at the front of it. Damon’s William is the “Han Solo”-type: a bad guy who becomes inspired to do good. It’s an archetype done a million times and Damon’s delivery makes William’s journey authentic. However, The Great Wall isn’t his story. It’s the story of the soldiers who live, fight, and die on the Wall to protect China – William is merely the audience’s gateway to the story. It’s because of this that no matter how good Damon is (quite), how funny Pascal is (seriously, I would watch “William and Tovar’s Road Show”), or how scary the monsters are (meh), the onus is on the rest of the cast.

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Tian Jing as Commander Lin Mae courtesy of Universal Pictures

Tian Jing as Commander Lin Mae exudes grace and talent as the leader of the Blue Team, who must take over command of the Wall. Andy Lau’s Strategist Wang provides wisdom and guidance without once stepping into a caricature. Hanyu Zhang as General Shao effectively balances the requirement of military order, while demonstrating reason and empathy. They are the true stars and they are undercut at nearly every step in an attempt to attract an American audience. The only saving grace is that William is not the “white savior” protesters of The Great Wall believe him to be. His presence doesn’t provide the key to winning the battle, he simply proves useful. But that’s not what American audiences are used to seeing, and the narrative suffers for it.

Though 3D is widely popular in Chinese cinema, it does very little to enhance the experience of The Great Wall and, in most case, manages to diminish it further. Well-intentioned in its use, 3D adds depth to flat images and creates a sense of being in the middle of the action; however, it also highlights where fantasy meets reality when the technique is executed poorly. It’s quite easy to tell when the actors are stabbing at computer-generated beasts, thereby removing any semblance of true fantasy. Even the moments where 3D might be most interesting – soldiers or weapons flying through the air – it feels gimmicky rather than impactful. Largely, audiences would do well to ignore the 3D upcharge and see The Great Wall without it.

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Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The Great Wall features some fun dialogue and entertaining fight scenes that make it a solid popcorn flick, but it’s neither an American action film nor a Chinese fantasy, which makes the overall package suffer. Perhaps if it had drawn inspiration from Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame or Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West – two features of Chinese cinema that take full advantage of their cast, design, and technology – then maybe The Great Wall would’ve had a shot at being something more. It wants to be more. It calls out – shouts really – that it’s more, but it’s never anything more than a fun but hollow spectacle.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5

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