The Great Wall
US/China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D, 104 mins.
Director: Zhang Yimou 张艺谋.
Though much better than expected, and recognisably a Zhang Yimou film, this costume monster movie still doesn’t measure up to its potential.
Northern China, Song dynasty, c. AD 1030. A handful of European mercenaries – survivors of a group of some two dozen who set out six months ago in the search for fabled “black powder” (gunpowder) in the East – shake off a band of Khitans in the desert. While sheltering overnight, they’re attacked by a unseen monster, whose arm one of them, William Garin (Matt Damon), manages to cut off. Next day, William Garin and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) set off north into the hills and, while escaping again from marauding Khitans, come across a section of the Great Wall, where they are arrested and questioned. The section is defended by the elite Shadowless Army, divided into five colour-coded troops: the green-grey Bears, led by overall commander Shao (Zhang Hanyu); the Deer, led by Deng (Huang Xuan); the red Eagles, led by Chen (Lin Gengxin); the gold Tigers, led by Wu (Peng Yuyan); and the all-female blue Cranes, led by Lin Mei (Jing Tian). The Chinese, including miltary strategist Wang (Liu Dehua), show a great interest in the beast’s limb that William Garin has with him. But their interrogation is cut short by an alarm signalling an attack by thousands of monsters. After a bloody battle, during which William Garin and Pero Tovar help out a little, the monsters eventually retreat. Shao confesses to Lin Mei that the monsters, who launch a one-week attack every 60 years, are evolving in intelligence. To thank the two Europeans, Shao gives them a room of their own, where they meet another westerner, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who came to China 25 years ago, also searching for “black powder”, and stayed on, teaching English and Latin. At a banquet, William Garin shows off his archery skills; intrigued, Lin Mei challenges him to try her troop’s speciality of descending the walls using elastic cords, but he begs off. Ballard tells William Garin and Pero Tovar that when the monsters attack again, they can escape with some “black powder”. The following night, Shao is badly wounded during an attack by a lone monster but manages to pass overall command to Lin before he dies. To Pero Tovar’s annoyance, William Garin becomes more involved in the Wall’s defence, and during an attack by the monsters in thick fog he helps in drugging and capturing one beast. When he becomes trapped outside the Wall, Pero Tovar goes to help him, and Lin is finally forced to use the army’s top-secret gunpowder bombs to save them. Against the objections of Wang, who has learned that the monsters can be pacified by magnets, the beast is carted off to the capital, Bianliang, for the amusement of young emperor Song Renzong (Wang Junkai). But then Lin discovers the monsters are on their way to the capital via a secret tunnel.
The pleasant surprise about Hollywood co-production The Great Wall 长城 is that it isn’t half as bad as expected: Matt Damon’s character doesn’t save China (and the world) singledhandedly, he doesn’t get to bed (or even kiss) the local girl, and the visual effects actually dominate the film far less than in many homegrown blockbusters. The less pleasant news is that The Great Wall isn’t anything special by today’s Mainland standards and hardly measures up to its potential, especially on the writing side: the plotting is simplistic, the characters aren’t much better than comic-strip cut-outs, and the whole thing has been ruthlessly edited down to a point where the story is scarcely organic, let alone involving in any way. That said, it’s still recognisably a film by Mainland director Zhang Yimou 张艺谋 and, though on the iffy level of his previous cross-cultural exercise, The Flowers of War 金陵十三钗 (2011), is still way better than any of the East-Meets-West undertakings by Cheng Long 成龙 [Jackie Chan], especially the recent Dragon Blade 天将雄师 (2015).
It was three years ago that Zhang, now 66, came on board a project that had been kicking around since the late 2000s and was originally to have been directed by the US’ Edward Zwick, who was responsible for the blundering The Last Samurai (2003). (Zwick still retains a story co-credit on Wall.) Zhang’s involvement, which started with a complete rewrite that lasted a year, seems to have benefited the movie in ways that would have been impossible under a US director. In fact, if anything Wall errs in the opposite direction: most of the time Damon’s westerner just stands there, awed, as China wheels out out its might, majesty and colour-coded warriors, and, when he’s challenged by a female general to try her bungee-jumping brand of fighting, he simply pussies out. It’s all a long way from Tom Cruise educating the natives, or yet another US movie about a westerner working out his demons in the scenic East. Damon’s character is only gradually threaded into the main plot, and even then via actions in which he’s one of a team. (His lack of big heroics even becomes a running joke by his mercenary pal.)
More’s the shame, then, that the story is so simplistic: a monster movie set in 11th-century China. The Great Wall isn’t about the construction of the edifice, the people behind it, or even its size. Instead, it’s about one small section, manned by elite troops trained to fight monster attacks, on to which two foreign mercenaries stumble while trying to steal some “black powder” (gunpowder) to sell back in Europe. As some opening titles say about the Wall: “It protected from many dangers. Some are known. Some are legend. This is one of the legends.” The film is officially credited to six American writers, including Tony Gilroy who worked on Damon’s Bourne films, Max (son of Mel) Brooks who specialises in zombie books, and the action-fantasy team of Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, 2010). Zhang takes no official credit.
After a token set-up of the two western mercenaries’ background, the plot boils down into them becoming trapped in a section of the wall while it’s repeatedly attacked by a huge army of monsters. These, we are told, come down for some human feeding every 60 years and, according to the troops’ commander (played with a weary gruffness by the reliable Zhang Hanyu 张涵予), are evolving in intelligence – though how he knows is never explained, as he wasn’t even born at the time of the previous attack. Trained for the one job, the troops are divided into elite, colour-coded groups, among which are the all-female, bungee-jumping Cranes whose flashing-eyed, strikingly-coiffed leader (Jing Tian 景甜) exchanges meaningful glances but nothing else with Damon’s glum mercenary.
It’s typical of the screenplay that it sets up ideas like an elite, anti-monster soldiery that has just a single purpose in life but never bothers to go any deeper than using it for colourful display (or at least, not in the final cut). The leaders of the various troops are only glancingly drawn – Taiwan’s Peng Yuyan 彭于晏 [Eddie Peng] pops up here, China’s Lin Gengxin 林更新 pops up there – and it’s only Jing’s distaff warrior who emerges with any personality, especially after her main acting competition, veteran Zhang, expires just before the halfway point.
A revelation in the unfairly derided The Warring States 战国 (2011), and a neat action heroine in the Zhen Zidan 甄子丹 [Donny Yen] vehicle Special ID 特殊身份 (2013), former dancer Jing, 28, even overshadows the top-billed but colourless Damon, staying with the main action right until the end and projecting a strong in-charge persona. Among the rest, Hong Kong’s Liu Dehua 刘德华 [Andy Lau] brings a smidgeon of class to the role of a wise miltary strategist, while ex-boybander Lu Han 鹿晗 simply simpers as a sympathetic soldier. As the other mercenary, Chilean-born, US-raised Pedro Pascal has a strong presence but not much of a role, while veteran Willem Dafoe has even less of a role plus a weak presence.
Despite these shortcomings, the film manages some memorable images: shots of the monsters swarming like termites up the sides of the Wall and, near the end, up the capital’s pagodas; the lanterns at a funeral halfway, plus their extension later on as hot-air balloons; the monsters dragging away their own dead when retreating; an attack in the fog; and the colour-coded troops parading on or abseiling off the Wall. The last blends Zhang Yimou’s long liking for such ceremony with futuristic costumes that have echoes of both modern-day US super-heroes and those in his own Curse of the Golden Flower 满城尽带黄金甲 (2006) and A Simple Noodle Story 三枪拍案惊奇 (2009). It’s a comfortable match that does, indeed, cross cultures.
With a key crew of international talent largely based in the US, technical credits are all thoroughly professional without being oustanding in any way – or, what’s more, especially spectacular compared with current Mainland blockbusters. Action staging is okay but, as in the Cranes’ bungee antics, flawed by not being very practical. Though there’s not much human story to involve the viewer, Zhang and the editors at least prevent the (so-so) visual effects from taking over the show completely. Music by Iranian German composer Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones, 2011- ) is rote action stuff, with no personality; much better is the production design by John Myhre (Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005), which acceptably mimics the spaciousness and geometry of some previous Zhang movies. Photography by New Zealand’s John Dryburgh (Bridget Jones’s Diary, 2001) and Zhang regular Zhao Xiaoding 赵小丁 blends painlessly.
In its first three weeks on release in China, Wall grossed almost RMB1.1 billion, which is about its reported budget of US$150 million – a very healthy amount but way down the list of box-office champions in the territory.
Presented by China Film (CN), Le Vision Pictures (Beijing) (CN), Universal City Studios (US), Legendary Pictures (US). Produced by Legendary Pictures (US), Atlas Entertainment (US).
Script: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy. Story: Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz. Photography: Stuart Dryburgh, Zhao Xiaoding. Editing: Mary Jo Markey, Craig Wood. Music: Ramin Djawadi. Production designer: John Myhre. Art direction: Helen Jarvis. Costume design: Mayes C. Rubeo. Sound: Kyrsten Mate, Beau Borders, Michael Semanick. Action: Koda Hiro, Buster Reeves, Sun Nuo. Special effects: Mark Koivu, Bob Williams. Visual effects: Phil Brennan (ILM, Hybride, BaseFX).
Cast: Matt Damon (William Garin), Jing Tian (Lin Mei, Cranes commander), Pedro Pascal (Pero Tovar), Willem Dafoe (Ballard), Liu Dehua [Andy Lau] (Wang, military strategist), Zhang Hanyu (Shao, Bears commander/overall commander), Lu Han (Peng Yong, soldier from Bears), Peng Yuyan [Eddie Peng] (Wu, Tigers commander), Lin Gengxin (Chen, Eagles commander), Zheng Kai (Shen, privy-council special envoy), Huang Xuan (Deng, Deer commander), Chen Xuedong (Imperial Guard commander), Wang Junkai (Song Renzong, emperor), Yu Xintian (Xiaoyu, Cranes deputy commander), Liu Qiong (Li Qing, Cranes deputy commander), Li Heng (messenger), Johnny Cicco (Rizzetti), Numan Acar (Najib).
Release: China, 15 Dec 2016; US, 17 Feb 2017.