An opening title card in groundbreaking Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s wannabe blockbuster, The Great Wall, tells us that this tale is just one of many legends surrounding the great wonder of the world which has stood for thousands of years, and spans for thousands of miles. A long time ago, a green meteor crashed to the Earth, delivering with it a horde of monsters believed to have been sent by the Gods to punish the Chinese Emperor’s abuse of his authority, and every sixty years they launch an attack on the Chinese Empire, while the Wall remains the only real line of defense. Selectively imaginative and awe-inspiring, The Great Wall suffers from occasionally lackluster special effects and large plot holes, ill-suiting the most expensive film ever made in China. But it is never boring, and features a barest minimum of character development, making for a serviceable attempt, even while not living up to the reputations of its terrific pedigree, and bankable star Matt Damon.
Damon plays William, a grungy, thieving mercenary, searching for elusive black powder to lead to his fortune. One night only he and his friend Tovar are left after enduring an attack by a large, unidentifiable monster. He chops off its arm and carries it with him, in hopes of discovering what exactly he just killed. They come to the Wall, and are taken prisoner by the Nameless Order, a Chinese military faction charged as the empire’s only line of defense against the creatures. Impressed by their ability to kill one of the monsters, called Tao Tei, and in William’s deft archery skills, the Order enlists their help at defending the Wall. The request slowly begins to crack William’s steely, rogue’s greed, as he becomes seduced by the lure of heroism and ancient Chinese notions of trust, but the same is not true for Tovar, who seeks any opportunity he can to flee with their captors’ stash of black powder.
Most of The Great Wall unfolds in true tower defense style, as repeated attacks by the monsters, rendered in huge CGI swarms of green, lizard-like, mini-dinosaurs of the kind that would barely pass as second-tier creatures in other films, are met with increasingly unique and operatic displays of fortification, which consist of a brigade of bungee jumping women with spears, endless barrages of arrows, scissor knives that emerge from the center of the wall to chop the monsters in half, and soaring cannonballs of fire arcing across the sky, which Yimou does not miss an opportunity to capture in flight. With a filmography steeped in exquisitely choreographed Martial Artistry, Yimou’s strengths are well-employed in these extended sequences, and more often than not thrill with a breathless wonder, assuming one can ignore the repetitive nature of the attacks, the sameness of all the creatures, and the nagging impossibility of the defenders’ plight, and the inevitability of their defeat. More than once the monsters retreat, inexplicably so considering Yimou’s many shots of them littering apocalyptic vistas in enormous multitudes that easily number in the millions. Thankfully this particular criticism is answered in the story, which surprisingly pulled me back from the precipice of incredulity just in time to hold my attention through the rest of the film.
Characters are obviously given short shift, with all the attention to spectacle the film affords. Many of the Nameless Order are blurred together, taking time only to highlight one timid soldier and a woman, of course, who William becomes infatuated with, and who assumes the position of General when the current one is killed in battle. But as a minor success, the attention the screenplay is paid in giving William a subtle arc is sufficient to float its human story beneath all the scenes of warfare. Lesser films might have ignored it altogether, or doubled down on the love angle, which The Great Wall leaves to a few sideways glances and unacknowledged tension. Matt Damon is arguably out of his element here, with a character that simply cannot convey every emotion with a steely glare like Jason Bourne, and his accent is questionable, but he meets the serviceable screenplay with equal passion and determination that it’s very easy to see how this film could have been a complete disaster with another director behind the camera, or another lead actor.
With such a laborious attention to the logistics of warfare, in preparing for each battle, and characters being slighted, The Great Wall occasionally falls apart within its details. Characters are able to come and go undetected when it’s convenient for the narrative, like an American played by Willem Dafoe, held prisoner for two decades only to finally see a chance to escape with the arrival of William and Tovar. Also the actions of some guards are suspect when they are called upon to extricate characters from danger, but which only opens up more questions about how they knew this information. When a film relies on exact planning and such careful execution in the plot points of its narrative, plot holes like this become much more significant and egregious. But Yimou is content with the screenplay as a blueprint for his spectacularly staged battle sequences, culminating in a dizzying, marvelous hot air balloon raid that must be seen to be believed. As a Chinese/American co-production, dual cinematographers Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) and twenty-first century Yimou mainstay Zhao Xiaoding frame the action against the stark, rocky Chinese landscapes, and in the end when the action comes to the the current Emperor’s headquarters, capture the director’s beautifully staged climax swathed in millions of colors as the sun explodes through hundreds of stained-glass windows at the top of a tower.
Yimou’s eye for crowd-pleasing spectacle, no doubt enriched by his commissioned work for the Opening Ceremonies at the Olympics held a few years ago in China, is of little doubt, and more than likely the film’s budget became just too big to risk any further tampering with the screenplay. More attention to character and story construction could have benefitted the film tremendously, but clearly from the film’s several hundred million dollar box office gross prior to even opening in the United States there were certainly global audience interests at stake, insurance against the inevitable bombing this film will do here in the States. I submit there’s enough here to dazzle even the most discerning filmgoer. It asks for patience in some areas, but is happy to overindulge in others, and the result is a pleasant diversion from the monotony of sameness that plagues cinema these days. Sure, it makes some of the same mistakes as its contemporaries, but its center stage exploration of another culture, however whitewashed and streamlined you think it might be, and top notch visual artistry by a master filmmaker, results in one of the most uniquely middle-of-the-road blockbusters you are likely to see this year. Its strengths outweigh its flaws, or at least sufficiently moot them, as it holds you in its thrall for its brief hundred minutes; certainly not the best thing you’ll see, but far from the worst.
The Verdict: Rave