The Great Wall Failed to Unite East and West Cinema [Review]
The Great Wall
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Screenplay by: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy
Story by: Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau
Running time 104 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence.
In the age of the Song dynasty during the reign of the Renzong Emperor, a Great Wall stands in defense of China. There are many legends about this wall and why it was built, this is one of those legends.
A few miles away from this Great Wall, a small group of mercenaries searching for black powder are being pursued by bandits, they take refuge in a cave but are then attacked in the night by an unknown monster. They were able to kill this monster, but only William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) survived the attack. In the fight William was able to cut off the monster’s hand, which he decides to keep in the hope that someone will be able to tell them what attacked them. The next day they are once again pursued by bandits, and are chased headlong into the Great Wall where they are taken prisoner by Chinese soldiers of a secretive military sect called the Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau). Having discovered the secret of the wall the laws of the Nameless Order dictate that the outsiders must never be allowed to leave, and should be put to death. However, the severed limb William has with him compels General Shao and Strategist Wang who now believe that the invading alien forces are much closer than they anticipated. The fact that William and Tovar managed to kill this formidable foe leads the General to stay their execution, when the alarms of attack begin to sound. With the wall suddenly under attack the Nameless Order’s battalions are mobilized. The Nameless Order is divided into five special units: the melee-specialist Bear Troop, the acrobatic-specialist Crane Troop, the archer-specialist Eagle Troop, the siege engine-specialist Tiger Troop, and the horse-mounted Deer Troop. William and Tovar are left restrained at the top of the wall while the battle rages. When the monsters reach the top of the wall William and Tovar are freed by Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe) and they join the fight, saving Peng Yong, an unskilled soldier from the Bear Troop. This act of heroism, when they could have fled, earn the respect of General Shao and Commander Lin (Jing Tian), leader of the Crane Troop. Later, William and Tovar learn Sir Ballard, a European who, like them, had ventured east twenty-five years ago in search of black powder, was also taken prisoner and now has been serving as an English and Latin teacher. In preparation for the next battle they learn the monsters that they fought were Tao-ties, which came from a green meteor that crash-landed onto Gouwu Mountain two thousand years ago. The Chinese believe the Taotie were sent from the gods to punish the Emperor for his greed. They attack northern China once every sixty years, an invasion for which the Order has been training for their entire lives, should they fail the Tao-ties would be an unstoppable force that would destroy China, and the world.
While I was thoroughly entertained and enjoyed this film, I can’t help but be disappointed due to the fact that this film could have, and should have, been much better than it was. The western influence present hobbled the production, and I firmly believe there were significant communication obstacles between director Zhang Yimou and Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, and Willem Dafoe because often it felt like these three actors were in a different film than the rest of the cast. As much as I enjoyed the performances of Damon, Pascal, and Dafoe, they were the least interesting characters in the film. As a whole, The Great Wall was owned by Jing Tian whose character was compelling and absolutely vital to the story. Also disappointing was the state of the visual effects. While the practical effects were fantastic, the digital failed to reach the point that they melded seamlessly with the rest of the film. This left several scenes looking unfinished and ultra-low budget.
As a while The Great Wall is a story of potential, what could have been great, was simply mundane. While it is great fun to watch, I can’t hold it up as a fully successful experiment in the marriage of western and eastern cinema. That said, I will gladly watch this film again because the portions that work, are phenomenal.