Commanding China’s most expensive production, with probably the biggest input from Hollywood talent ever, blockbuster Chinese director Zhang Yimou capably gives period fantasy-action “The Great Wall” the look and feel of a Hollywood blockbuster, but his signature visual dazzle, his gift for depicting delicate relationships and throbbing passions are trampled by dead-serious epic aspirations.
Those who ranted against the project as another case of Hollywood “whitewashing” in which Matt Damon saves China from dragons may have to bite their tongue, for his character, a mercenary soldier who stumbles into an elite corps fighting mythical beasts, spends the course of the film being humbled, out-smarted, and re-educated in Chinese virtues of bravery, selflessness, discipline, and invention. In between the cultural cheerleading, there are some highly watchable war and monster spectacles, though none so original or breathtaking as to stop one from associating them with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy or its imitators.
With a reported $150 million budget, the film rolls out in China mid-December with little competition in cinemas, boosted by a massive marketing campaign, which should draw full houses in the first week at least — though “The Great Wall” has a lot to recoup and will be hard-pressed to beat Stephen Chow’s charmingly lo-tech romantic fantasy “The Mermaid,” which still holds the record as China’s top-grossing film with nearly $489 million. While its marriage of Hollywood production values with Asian elements may skew the film toward a more culturally open-minded audience, the generic storytelling and lack of iconic characters will make it a tough sell stateside when Universal releases it on Feb. 17.
The film opens like a spaghetti western in the Gobi Desert, as mercenary soldiers William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Chilean-born actor Pedro Pascal from “Game of Thrones”) flee the attack of Khitans, and Damon’s character procures the claw of an unknown creature by fluke. They arrive at a fortress on one segment of the Great Wall and are captured by the Nameless Order, an elite army led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) to fight Taotie, ravenous beasts that rise locust-like from the nearby Jade Mountain every 60 years to devour humans and everything else in their wake.
The mechanical screenplay keeps the battles coming with accelerating size and peril. Shot with sweeping agility by Stuart Dryburgh (“Alice Through the Looking Glass”) and Zhang regular Zhao Xiaoding, using the Arri Alexa 65 and other state-of-the-art cameras, images of leaping movement appear with extraordinary sharpness in the 3D IMAX format. As the entire horde lays siege to two pagodas, the finale evinces the raw threat of a zombie apocalypse while the resplendent colored glass windows inside the pagodas form a romantic and distinctly Chinese backdrop.
Yet, with rapid-fire editing by Mary Jo Markey (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) and Craig Wood (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise), viewers are also overwhelmed by the inability to take in everything before the film abruptly lulls again to make room for more exposition and drama. This is especially true in an otherwise gripping setpiece in which Garin helps the soldiers capture a live Taotie, as the intricate human offensives are clouded by fog and dust.
Though the film plays with the idea that China’s Great Wall may have been erected to keep out invaders more intimidating than mere mortals, the idea isn’t necessarily original, having already inspired the 2009 Japanese manga “Attack on Titan,” which depicts a community that has built concentric walls to ward off man-eating giants. The Nameless Order, with its five corps named after and touting the combat styles of the crane, bear, eagle, deer, and tiger, resembles the three-tiered military in “Titan.” (In particular, the Crane Corps, made up of all-female aerialists, swing around in a tethering system that invites close parallels with the “Vertical Maneuvering Equipment” in “Titan.”)
That wouldn’t be such a problem if Zhang or his scribes had devoted even a smidgen of time to giving the respective commanders identities or backstories. Instead, though they are played by recognized actors (Eddie Peng, Kenny Lin Gengxin) with proven ability and charisma, these characters are just glorified cameos, stomping around in heavy armor looking angry or worried or both. Since most of the Chinese characters are portrayed as flawless paragons, they end up looking like cardboard cut-outs with no emotional dimension. This makes former K-pop idol Lu Han, with his characteristic boyish coyness, stand out as a cowardly foot soldier whose valor grows through his friendship with Garin.
The only character who hogs the spotlight is Lin Mae (Jing Tian), commander of the Crane Corps, as she’s the one who impresses Garin with the Chinese people’s altruism in fighting not for money, but for the salvation of humankind. Perhaps the sheer amount of English dialogue constrains her performance, but Jing is completely wooden in her exchanges with Damon, even though Lin and Garin are supposed to develop a grudging respect and warmth for each other. Their dynamic feels especially awkward in static close-ups (and hers are numerous), when she’s most expressionless.
It’s heartening that a film with European protagonists doesn’t cave to the controversial “white savior” syndrome seen in movies such as “Forbidden Kingdom.” But Damon’s role as a money-grubbing, lying, and smelly foreign mercenary is dubiously similar to the boozy, uncouth, opportunist mortician Christian Bale played in Zhang’s “The Flowers of War,” and he too is schooled in Chinese values of self-sacrifice by a coterie of “professional” women. Given very little complexity to round out his character, Damon forges a presence in the scenes of physical exertion, but don’t expect any award nominations.
As for his selfish and unlikable sidekick, Pascal’s lines fall flat as comic relief and sound worse in translation, while a gaunt-looking Willem Dafoe is wasted as a minor villain.
Zhang’s bold use of color schemes and lustrous lighting, notably in “Curse of the Golden Flower” or “Hero” are subdued by “Memoirs of a Geisha” production designer John Myhre’s stately contributions, which avoid chinoiserie in favor of subtle Chinese period details that most viewers will overlook in the flurry of action. And despite much being made of the Taotie, which were conceived from ancient Chinese mythology and invested with a philosophical dimension as the symbol and scourge of greed, their form and movement are not so distinct from Orcs or mini-Godzillas.
First announced in August 2011 as a English-speaking tentpole project to kickstart Legendary East, the new Chinese arm of Legendary Pictures (now acquired by China’s Wanda Media), “The Great Wall” builds on such east-west collaborations as “Dragon Blade” and the Justin Lin-produced “Hollywood Adventures.” Early on, the project was to be helmed by “The Last Samurai” director Edward Zwick, who planned to co-write the script with Marshall Herskovitz, working from a concept from Legendary CEO Thomas Tull and “World War Z” author Max Brooks. Henry Cavill, Benjamin Walker, and Zhang Ziyi were at one time attached to star, though the final form was written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy, featuring more Mandarin dialogue and a bigger proportion of Chinese cast.