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The Great Wall
The Great Wall (2016)

Jing Tian, Matt Damon, Andy Lau and Lu Han in The Great Wall.
Chinese: 長城  
Year: 2016  
Director: Zhang Yimou
Producer: Jon Jashni, Peter Loehr, Charles Roven, Thomas Tull
Writer: Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy

Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Willem Dafoe, Lu Han, Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng Yu-Yan, Kenny Lin, Huang Xuan, Ryan Zheng Kai, Wang Junkai, Cheyney Chen

The Skinny: The Great Wall is a weak triumph of marketing and a gross failure of every filmmaking tenet that Zhang Yimou has largely stood for up until now. Solid CGI and some riveting visuals don’t make up for the horrible story, stupid logic and nonexistent development that plague this Hollywood-China coproduction. It’s fashionable to blame star Matt Damon, but really, it’s not his fault.
by Kozo:

Zhang Yimou and Hollywood team up for the historical fantasy The Great Wall, and that flushing sound you hear is a world class filmmaker’s integrity going down the toilet. Not that Zhang hasn’t produced commercial work before – there were concessions made for Flowers of War, Curse of the Golden Flower and the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony – but at least those projects (minus the Olympic thing) told stories with complex themes, characters or ideas. Some, like Golden Flower, even had great action, proving that you can make an action film that’s about more than just ass-kicking. The Great Wall does explore themes like greed, trust and the idea that even the 90-pound class weakling can help save the world. But overall, the film doesn’t possess a dimension beyond its high production values and skeletal narrative framework to convince that it’s anything but a crass calculation out to take your hard-earned dollars. Thanks but no thanks, guys – I already have the Transformers movies doing that for me.

Credited to about a zillion screenwriters, The Great Wall finds its roots in mythical Chinese creatures called “Tao Tei” (not to be confused with “Tao Ti”, the bottled tea brand endorsed by co-star Andy Lau), which are described in the book Classic of Mountains and Seas, an ancient compendium of mythical geography and stories that would later inform other Chinese books, movies and television. In the film, the Tao Tei are emerald-hued wolf-lizards that attack every sixty years to feed upon humanity and propagate their otherwise unremarkable species. The audience learns all this through intro titles and their presumed onscreen guides: European mercenaries William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal). While evading bandits in China, William and Tovar encounter a lone Tao Tei before being captured by Chinese armies stationed at The Great Wall, which the men somehow didn’t see before they were right in front of it. However, swarming masses of Tao Tei attack, so the pokey will have to wait.

William and Tovar prove useful by helping to repel the Tao Tei attack – particularly William, who possesses superhuman archery skills like an OEM Legolas. Soon, the two men are invited to collaborate with the Nameless Order, the secret Chinese army trained from birth to oppose the Tao Tei. But fighting CGI wolf-lizards is not why these burly Europeans decided to visit the Middle Kingdom. The men are actually seeking “black powder” a.k.a. gunpowder, and while Tovar wants to continue looking, William is conflicted. For about five minutes. Soon William decides to gives up his life as “a thief, a liar and a killer” to seek redemption as a warrior of justice. This character arc is reasonable but painfully underdeveloped. After a couple of brooding gazes into the distance, William does a character U-turn and the audience is supposed to buy that it means more than the words printed on Matt Damon’s script. Damon’s golden boy personality is enough to convince that William is a good guy. However, since he never seems like a bad guy, selling his change of heart is pointless.

Similarly, the rest of The Great Wall is shallow and poorly developed. Scenes connect to one another awkwardly or with extraordinary convenience, and many characters lack credibility. For example, Ballard (Willem Dafoe) is another European detained at the Wall by the Chinese, and has waited twenty-five years for his own chance to steal the black powder. So after twenty-five years of watching the Nameless Order train to fight monstrous demons, all Ballard wants to do is the exact same thing he was doing twenty-five years ago? Granted, Ballard's avarice ties into the film's musings on greed, but this theme isn't played up that well, and Ballard (and William and Tovar) aren't portrayed in a manner that gives it weight. Zhang Yimou could have seeded this theme better with darker characters and more complex drama, but that would have gotten in the way of the simplistic story. Like everything else in Great Wall, themes and characters are just cardboard support for the CGI set pieces.

Also, while redemption and trust are mentioned as William's reasons for assisting the Nameless Order, his attraction towards Commander Lin (Jing Tian, in another serviceable but unmemorable performance) seems to be the real driving force. The two get cute dialogue callbacks and their eyes frequently meet thanks to the power of editing, but their connection seems forced, like yet another commercial requirement of a script that’s already been dumbed down enough. In the same vein, all the action seems to be confined to a few hundred meters of the Great Wall and never takes into account the thousands of other kilometers and what could be happening there. Smaller details are also ignored in favor of convenience; one mousy soldier (Lu Han) is demoted to washing dishes in the kitchen, which he does – while wearing his full set of armor including the helmet. Details like these make the script seem transparently mechanical, with not enough done to flesh out the world and help suspend disbelief.

However, some of the action possesses impressive scale and visual grandeur – especially the first battle, which introduces the color-coded regiments of the Nameless Order. This includes Commander Lin’s blue-armored all-women squad, which dives off the wall while tethered to ropes to attack the Tao Tei at the Wall’s base before being quickly retracted back. Yes, these girls kill wolf-lizards by bungee jumping, and it’s pretty kickass. Sadly, this sequence is compromised by William and Tovar, who offer cringe-worthy commentary like, “Wow, have you ever seen anything like this?” This hand-holding is just another example of the screenplay’s mechanical calculation, which encompasses lame exposition and also the careful manner in which William is written as a member of the team and not an obvious white savior. Still, the story is told from his perspective, he gets the primary character arc, and he drives many key plot turns. The film earned pre-release scorn from cultural critics, and this is precisely why: The Great Wall is a resolutely Asian story and yet in current year, a white man is still required to carry it.

However, China doesn't care about whitewashing, so they get some blame for offending their own race. Their only goal is money and that's why they hired Matt Damon and his box office power – which, despite not being completely proven is still a better bet worldwide than Andy Lau's. There are simply too many agendas to satisfy – Hollywood wants China money, woke filmmakers don't want to offend people, and Chinese studios want to increase China's soft power by using Matt Damon as a cultural Trojan horse. Whatever. Controversial or not, this is a weak film with a thin story and an uninteresting hero – basically, take Hawkeye from The Avengers and shunt him through time to fight Hulk Dog knock-offs in Ancient China and you've got The Great Wall. Zhang Yimou says he made this film to help future Chinese directors enter the global market, and if so he gets a one-off pat on the back. Yimou, I will give you my ten dollars this time but please don’t make a movie like this ever again. (Kozo, 4/2017)

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