Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Cheney Chen, Huang Xuan, Karry Wang, Ryan Zheng, Numan Acar, Johnny Cicco, Vicky Yu, Bing Liu
Running Time: 104 min.
By Kyle Warner
In 2008, Zhang Yimou amazed the world with the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. It was a spectacle for the eyes, ears, heart, and mind. As a fan of his movies and as a stunned observer of the Beijing opening ceremony, I wonder if Yimou ever felt intimidated by his own success at the Olympics. Because, though I’ve mostly enjoyed the films Yimou made post-Olympics, I think it’s fair to say that they’re not up to the quality that we’ve come to expect from the master filmmaker. His first film after the Olympics, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, an oddball remake of the Coen’s debut thriller Blood Simple, was amusing but hardly an essential piece of the director’s filmography. The Flowers of War, for all its beautiful cinematography and important historical content, feels dramatically cool and distant. Coming Home, a drama about lives being torn apart during the Cultural Revolution, bears similarities to Yimou’s masterful To Live but lacks all the subtlety found in that earlier film. So, if you were to tell me a year ago that an aggressively silly monster movie starring Matt Damon would be the film where Zhang Yimou got his groove back, I’d call you crazy. And yet… here we are?
William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are soldiers on the run from bandits in the northern mountains of China. They’re in China looking for black powder to take back to their armies but are intercepted by a strange beast in the night. William kills the monster, which falls into a ravine, and he claims a severed green arm as a trophy. The next morning, the soldiers are chased once more, and their flight leads them to the front steps of the Great Wall of China, manned by a thousand Chinese soldiers. William and Tovar are put in chains, led into the Wall, and interrogated. It’s only after Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) discovers the severed green arm in the foreigner’s supplies that they begin to listen to their story more closely. When William tells him that they met the beast only two days ride to the north, a note of fear spreads through the Chinese soldiers. They know what this monster is. They know that there are more of them. And they had not dared to think that they could already be so close.
From there we get a wham-bam action movie with so many moving pieces, so many strange sights, and it’s all – somehow – conducted in a clear, easy to follow manner. Thousands of green monsters that look a bit like inbred, mutant dinosaurs (complete with eyeballs located on their shoulders and vibrating xylophones on their spines) come charging towards the Great Wall like a unified force. The Chinese soldiers go to their posts; they each have a job to do. The soldiers in red are archers. The soldiers in black are infantry who man the wall should a monster make it over the top. The soldiers in purple protect the general (Zhang Hanyu). And women in blue jump over the wall with a spear to stab at the monsters below before they are towed back to the top on a rope and pulley system. Meanwhile, William and Tovar are tied up and terrified, just watching shit unfold like maybe they took one bad turn too many and ended up in the worst spot imaginable. The foreigners free themselves, then join in on the fight, doing enough good work to stay their executions for now.
When everything’s working, the movie can be quite a rush. And even at the stupidest moments, The Great Wall is still good fun. It’s an escapist man vs. monster movie set in Ancient China with a strong cast and a great director at the helm. Is it a less important movie than even some of Yimou’s near-misses, like Flowers of War (which also featured a Hollywood star)? Yes, probably. But it’s a better film because it achieves all that it sets out to do. Mainly: have a good time showing cool actors kill off weird monsters for a little under two hours.
The Great Wall has gotten some heat from critics and filmgoers for whitewashing Chinese history. And listen, I understand the complaint because movies like Ghost in the Shell have some difficult questions to answer. But I gotta tell ya, The Great Wall doesn’t really belong in the same conversation. I don’t think it even belongs in the conversation of ‘white savior’ adventure movies where the American saves the day for a tribe of people different from him. Damon’s William comes to China to steal gunpowder and he has no illusions about being an honorable man. He’s a fine fighter, yes, but the only game changing thing he brings to China’s fight against the monsters is Europe’s whale hunting methods (which, for a modern viewer, may not read as a very heroic thing for our character to know so much about). And sure, William changes his tune as the film progresses, becoming more of a good guy, but he never becomes the savior, let alone the leader. William becomes a valuable member of the team, different background and all, and ultimately I feel like that’s a positive message that both Chinese and American films could use more of. As for William’s comrade Tovar, Pedro Pascal (Narcos) plays the part as even more roguish than Damon’s William. Tovar wants to rip off the Chinese, even when he sees the fight they’re up against. Willem Dafoe (John Wick) has a small part, and he too belongs in the bastard category. So, if you have major issues with whitewashing in Hollywood, I hear you. But I don’t think a film directed by Zhang Yimou, financed with Chinese money, filmed half in Mandarin, and depicting white dudes as thieving opportunists is the movie you should be taking issue with. My advice, watch it before developing too strong of a political opinion against it.
If Jing Tian was more of a star in the west at this point in her career, I do believe she’d share top billing with Damon on the posters because she’s very much the film’s co-lead. As Commander Lin, Jing is the Great Wall’s most fiercely loyal defender. She believes in something deeper than gold or renown, which causes her to clash with William who is more the mercenary, and makes for some decent character work. With parts in Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising coming up, perhaps Jing Tian’s star is on the rise in the US.
Hong Kong favorite superstar Andy Lau (Saving Mr. Wu) has a nice supporting part as the Great Wall’s head strategist. It was weird for me at first, having seen Lau in so many Chinese productions, to see him speaking English opposite Matt Damon. And Lau did a commendable job, too, playing the most levelheaded guy in a movie full of characters who are either macho or terrified. I’m not sure if this will lead to more English speaking roles for Lau or not but he did a good enough job to deserve the shot if he so desires.
The film looks beautiful. Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) perfectly captures the crazy visuals and Yimou’s delicious use of colors. As mentioned, all the soldier units are decked out in different colored armors and the monsters are green. It’s like a painter’s palette has been weaponized and gone to war. When Strategist Wang works up a potion to put one of the monsters to sleep, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see harpoons dripping with bright yellow liquid; the last major color missing from Yimou’s canvas.
The Great Wall surprised me. I went in expecting some goofy movie with Chinese vs. monsters and that’s exactly what I got, but it was done on a level usually reserved for more prestigious historical epics and fantasy adventures. The Great Wall is a B-movie done with A-talent who refused to slump for a paycheck. Not as eloquent or as dramatic as Yimou’s arthouse action movies like Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower but still clearly made by the same visual artist, The Great Wall is a feast for the eyes and a helluva good time at the movies.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10