MOVIE REVIEW: The Great Wall



Bill Goodykoontz, the fine film critic of the Arizona Republic and USA Today contributor, interviewed Matt Damon during his press tour for “The Martian” and asked the Oscar winner how he chooses his roles.  The actor responded:

“I choose my roles entirely based on who’s directing them. That’s the most important decision, is who’s the director, and that just comes from knowing my performance and the movie itself is completely at the mercy of this person.”  

Using that scrupulous gauge, the vitae of directors Damon has worked over the last 20 years reads like a Murderer’s Row of hitmakers and all-time greats from the last 50 years of cinema.  Running with him is going to take a higher class of credentials.

Enter Chinese director Zhang Yimou, the creative force behind the superb trio of  “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero,” and “The House of Flying Daggers” among others.  His resume includes three Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, a Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, a Silver Lion and a Golden Bear from Venice, and a Golden Bear from Berlin.  Yimou is renowned for this visual flair for action and rich use of color throughout his work.  He checks the pedigree boxes and then some.  

Their culminating collaboration is “The Great Wall,” an imposing creature feature that stands as a three-headed glamour project.  You have an A-list star venturing overseas for international credibility and a splashy director landing his official English-language debut.  Aiming higher in aspiration is a production company hoping to open a new and profitable pipeline of investment between Hollywood and China.  Visually splendid from top to bottom, this epic adventure squeaks by on its looks and spares no expense to make sure of that.

Spinning a fictional yarn of supernatural and otherworldly legend deemed to take place during the Song dynasty, a company of bartering mercenaries from Europe seek the fabled black powder of China.  On the run from bandits, they find their numbers reduced from twenty to two after being attacked by an unseen monster in a cave.  The two that remain are William (Damon) and his unfailing compadre Tovar (Pedro Pascal of “Game of Thrones”).  Pushing forward, the two survivors soon encounter the mammoth titular border defenses occupied by a waiting army.

Divided into six specialized battalions, each led by a dominant commander, these forces are the Nameless Order.  Chief among them are General Shao (Zhang Hanyu of “Assembly”), the veteran strategist Wang (decorated legend Andy Lau), and the English-speaking female warrior Lin Mae (Jing Tian, soon blowing up as part of “Kong: Skull Island” and the “Pacific Rim” sequel).  The Order have trained their entire lives to lay siege and hold back threats from entering the kingdom.  The monster William and Tovar encountered is a harbinger of what Order calls the Taotie, a ferocious horde of green reptilian wolf-like beasts linked by a controlling queen that rise every 60 years to ravage the nation.  Mercenaries to the core, the duo earn their stripes and the Order’s respect in battle and must decide whether to join their ranks or return on their greedy way, all while the marauding threat on the other side of the wall grows and looms.

Aesthetically, “The Great Wall” balances a cinematic pageantry of ornate details being bashed to bits in opulent and visceral battles.  A good initial film comparison for showy visuals powering a razor thin story would be John McTiernan’s 1999 sword-clanging brawler “The 13th Warrior.”  This film is far more balletic, but still plenty stupefyingly and simplistic.  Thankfully, Zhang Yimou’s motif of vivid color is injected into every layer of the action spectacle and, damn, is it pretty.  The artistic and technical proficiencies on display provide the compelling qualities for enjoyment that are sorely lacking in the cockamamie narrative.  

Mayes C. Rubeo’s costume designs (“Avatar” and “John Carter”) take on the director’s coloration with animalistic bravura.  The art direction from two-time Oscar winner John Myhre (“Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”) create brawny war machines bursting out of stone walls and wooden towers.  Angle-bending crane shots through wind and mist from the cinematography team of Stuart Dryburgh (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) and Zhao Xiaoding (“House of Flying Daggers”) beg for the upcharged pop of 3D and spin us through bombastic combat and Weta Workshop special effects with varying speeds.

One lacking artistic component that does not fully mesh with the decorative extravaganza is the bossy score from composer Ramin Djawadi (“Iron Man”).  It lacks a gravitating central theme and settles for being pounding filler.  This is a place where one wishes for a time machine to bring back the brassy scoring cues of a Jerry Goldsmith or a Basil Poledouris.  Even a little something from Yimou’s fellow Asian and previous collaborators, Tan Dun (“Hero”) or Shigeru Umebayashi (“House of Flying Daggers”), could have made a world of difference.

Banking on Matt Damon and installing a script polish or two from his “Bourne” series screenwriter and “Michael Clayton” Academy Award nominee Tony Gilroy, Universal Pictures and Legendary Entertainment gave Yimou a $135 million budget for the most expensive film shot entirely in China.  “The Great Wall” has already earned over $220 million overseas as it hopes to plant its flag stateside.  The color of that flag is light red at this point due to pandering claims of white-washed casting fueled by months of misguided speculation.  Let the director’s own strong words deter the ranters on the casting and everyone please remember they are making a fantasy film and not a historical documentary.  The real cause of derailment will be its ridiculousness, no matter how beautiful it is.

LESSON #1: GUNPOWDER IS AWESOME-- There’s a reason armies and soldiers carry weapons using the explosive power of the “black powder” and it ain’t because it smells good.  Why poke something with arrows and blades over and over when you can blow it up in short order for coolness and efficiency.

LESSON #2: TRUSTING IN EACH OTHER INSTEAD OF TRUSTING NO ONE-- The Nameless Order function as a collection of tightly coordinated and highly trained fighting units.  Like a phalanx, their combined military might is only as strong as its weakest element.  One flaw can bring the whole thing down.  Their strength is built on trusting the dedication and skill of the soldier standing next to them.  Trust is something valued low and sought even lower by William and Tovar.  Gaining mutual respect from their captors builds a shift in the trust.

LESSON #3: FIGHTING FOR SOMETHING MORE-- In a fully cliched “face turn,” the protagonist William goes from intolerant to inspired.  He chooses the uphill battle instead of the easy way out.  Williams trades fighting for the highest bidder and one more flag for a cause that changes his ways and activates his closeted heroism.