IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 105 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the time of the Song dynasty during the reign of the Renzong Emperor a few miles north of the Great Wall of China, a mercenary group originally consisting of twenty men searching for black powder is pursued by bandits who have already killed some of the men. Upon escaping they seek refuge in a cave but are then attacked by an unknown monster, leaving only William and Tovar alive. The next day, the two stumble upon the Great Wall and are taken prisoner by Chinese soldiers of a secretive military sect led by General Shao and Strategist Wang called the Nameless Order, a group commissioned by the Imperial Court for the sole purpose of repelling a horde of alien monsters called Taoties who rise every 60 years….and the monsters are now massing to attack….
Movies can be very enlightening on historical matters and correct all that nonsense we were taught at school. The battle of Stirling Bridge actually didn’t take place on and around a bridge at all. The Roman Emperor Commodus wasn’t killed by a wrestler in the bath but died in hand to hand combat with a guy called Maximus whose existence every single historian seems to have forgotten to mention. Mary Queen of Scots was English not French. World War 2 actually ended with the Nazi high command going up in flames in a burning cinema. And now, The Great Wall informs us that China’s greatest wonder was not built to keep away the Mongols and other nomadic tribes, but to keep away monsters who came to earth in a green meteor that crash-landed onto Gouwu Mountain and who were kind enough to only attack every 60 years. Actually my sarcasm is probably a little harsh, and the biggest fuss concerning Zhang Yimou’s new film is about how it has a couple of white guys help save the day [the issue of race really does obsess many these days] though that was probably done for commercial reasons and not intended to offend. After all the director is Chinese, and all three white protagonists are pretty ignoble for much of the time compared to the Chinese who are all noble and virtuous. Unsurprisingly it seems to be Westerners or Chinese people living in the West – as opposed to citizens of China – who are more criticising the supposed “whitewashing”.
I was all but ready to have a whinge and ask why the director of such great movies as Red Sorghum, Raise The Red Lantern and House Of Flying Daggers is lowering himself to CGI-filled Hollywood action nonsense. However, The Great Wall, a project that Yimou has been wanting to make for a very long time, isn’t too bad. In fact, if you can forgive the fact that the film in no way needed to have any alien monsters whatsoever [though at least they do have their basis in Chinese mythology], it does entertain. Think of it as just another fantasy epic with creatures and gigantic battle scenes and it just about does the job, though it’s too repetitive and restrictive to stand out. Yimou seems somewhat constrained by what is by far the biggest budget he’s ever had, providing a few terrific visuals and moments of originality but not nearly as many as one would expect. It’s as if he got rather overwhelmed along the way and ended up making a film which has little feeling and seems very mechanical. So as a Yimou film it’s pretty disappointing, but taken on its own it holds up rather better.
Right from the beginning scene the Chinese countryside is gloriously photographed by Stuart Dryburgh and Xiaoding Zhao, even considering that they seem to have gone for bleak and even forbidding looking areas. A load of men on horses are chasing a smaller group which, after losing some of their number, escapes into a cave where we witness one of the most baffling scenes I’ve viewed in some time. Supposedly a monster attacks and kills all of the men except William and Tover and is in turn slain by William, but the event is cut down to a few extremely quick shots so it’s hard to make out what has actually happened and I only realised what had transpired in the next scene. Was the scene reduced to almost nothing because it was too violent or scary? Was it just not finished? Who knows. Anyway, William and Tover are the only survivors but continue in their search for gunpowder [which was something that only existed in China for quite a long time], intending to steal it if and when they find it. One of the nicest things in this film is the light hearted banter between William and Tover; it’s often genuinely funny and Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal do have some chemistry, even though they’re separated for most of the second half and is one reason why the second half isn’t quite as good as the first.
Anyway our two reprobates find themselves at the Great Wall of China [which has been conveniently built by the time the monsters attack – though wasn’t it actually built in sections and took far longer than 60 years to be constructed?] and soon have to muck in when hordes of CGI creatures – which actually look fairly good when seen in detail [both ILM and WETA were involved with this film] but which look very fake when viewed en masse – start running towards the wall and climbing up it. This opening battle is quite a stunner – even the bit where all the Chinese troops mobilise is quite spectacular and aided immensely by the wondrous costumes and the fact that for the majority of the time it does seem to be real people rather than digital people that we are watching. And then there’s a genuinely jaw dropping bit where loads of female warriors basically bungee jump off the wall and hurtle towards the Taoties with huge spears to try to kill and injure as many as they can before they need to be pulled back up again. Of course William proves his mettle and is immediately hailed by the Chinese as a hero though some rightly remain suspicious of him. Rather conveniently, he carries with him a special magnet which could just be one of a kind which can pacify the Taoties – so they decide to capture one to find out for sure. William and Tovor notice Sir Ballard, a European who, like them, had ventured east twenty-five years ago in search of black powder. Like them, Ballard was also taken prisoner and has been serving as an English and Latin teacher. Ballard agrees to help them escape with some powder, but William begins to have second thoughts, as would I if confronted with the stunning beauty of Tian Jing, though the expected romance between the two doesn’t really happen which I guess is quite refreshing.
There’s a lovely moment when lots of white lanterns float into the sky, and a really exciting and interesting action set piece where people on hot air balloons begin to attack the Taoties. Zimou retains his skill in filming action and only occasionally goes into the slow motion one might expect would be used a lot, while the camera constantly sweeps over landscapes both empty and crammed with hundreds of digital combatants as if The Lord Of The Rings trilogy had never happened. Though as usual I has no interest in seeing the film in 3D, it did look as if the format had been utilised quite well. However, the film does eventually seem to run out of ideas and the final set piece is very disappointing despite some of it taking place underneath brightly coloured windows where different colours stream down to where the characters are. The Taoties remain an ill-defined menace – for a start so much more could have been done with the section where one of them is kept in captivity. The human side of things feels rather cut down. The child Emperor especially looks like a character whose part has been truncated and it would have been nice to have seen a bit of life behind the wall. There’s little in the way of in-depth characterisation, and what does pass for it develops in a very predictable fashion. Not all the cast members appear to be giving it their all either. Andy Lau looks a little lost and if he wasn’t speaking English than you’d barely notice him. Damon seems to be half-attempting an Irish accent and Willem Dafoe barely has a character to even play.
Scored in predictably bland fashion by Ramin Djawadi , there’s a hell of a lot about this film that could and should have been better, and especially if you consider who directed it. It’s like they came up with this terrific idea for a film and started off just fine but then just ran out of inspiration, in the end coming up with something that, while it does have a vague feeling of eccentricity about it which is quite appealing, just isn’t different enough and feels very compromised and unsure of what it’s trying to say about things like Eastern/Western relations, collectivism vs individualism, and so forth. Yet in the end you could do far worse. I think that many kids [the graphicness is limited to lots of green monster blood and a few people being bloodlessly eaten] will probably love it, and indeed while not a smash hit it does seem to be doing better at the box office than many predicted – and that has got to be a good thing in today’s superhero/established franchise-dominated environment.