The Chinese are coming. Well, actually, they are already here, and they have been coming for a while. I am not talking politically because that is a different, more complicated job for a blogger, rather I am talking about the Chinese influence over Hollywood. We have seen it in the way that Hollywood markets films at a Chinese audience and the way that there are now more Chinese/American co-productions in the works, like last year’s Kung-Fu Panda 3 and this film, The Great Wall.
Directed by Zhang Yimou of Hero and House of Flying Daggers fame, The Great Wall is a Chinese US co-production about two mercenaries, William and Tovar, looking for gunpowder to use in an unknown war for an unknown master. However, the two stumble upon The Great Wall of China, humanity’s last defence against the Toa Tie (a race of ravenous reptiles), and the Nameless Order that is tasked with driving the scaly threat back.
I am just going to be upfront about this; The Great Wall is not a masterpiece, it is not even what I would call a good film, but despite that I found myself enjoying this strange ride. There are a few good things about the movie. First, the production design is phenomenal; the different regiments in the Nameless Order have their own armour, with a particular colour and animal design that really makes the action sequences easy to follow. Speaking of which…
Each time the Toa Tie attack a new strategy is used; we see the crane corps, which are like bungee jumpers with spears, scissors in the walls, etc. So the action never really feels stale. The story that strings these action set pieces together is threadbare at best, but in my experience with action movies, the plot is only an excuse to get from one fabulous spectacle to another.
Finally, it is important to address the performances. There is a joint Western and Chinese cast. Rounding out the Western cast is Willem Dafoe, Pedro Pascal (better known as Oberyn Martell from Game of Thrones) as Tovar and Matt Damon as William. While the chemistry between Pascal and Damon is great, Damon’s attempt at what I think was an Irish accent is beyond words: it is just bizarre. The Chinese cast does a great job with the material they are given, clearly more used to the type of film than their western counterparts. It is great to see more international faces in what could have been a Hollywood only blockbuster; such as Andy Lau from House of Flying Daggers and Infernal Affairs, as well as Jing Tian who is due to make appearances in Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising.
Before concluding with The Great Wall, it is important to address some controversy. Also if I comment on it, I can feel important and relevant. There has been criticism in Western media about Matt Damon’s involvement; early trailers seemed to suggest that Damon was playing a Western saviour in the narrative. This has been something of a problem, but thankfully it is not the case here. With a new global approach to movie making, it is important to consider that dividing characters by racial or national bias is outdated; we should ask whether we need a white male character in a film about minority struggles as an audience surrogate anymore. I for one look forward to the day where studios say that we no longer need a white face to sympathise with, and will trust that we are humans with the ability to relate to other humans regardless of skin colour or culture.
Despite The Great Wall having some great art design and exciting and inventive action set pieces, the film just feels a little disjointed, maybe due to the different directions that it is being pulled in as a result of the difference in cultures. It never really came together as a cohesive whole in my opinion. It is a shame because if it had, I would have found myself recommending this film to anyone who would care to listen. Personally I did find myself having fun and enjoying the movie, though not for any profound reason than it was a good laugh and an exciting ride.