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article imageReview: The enemy is inside ‘The Great Wall’ Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Feb 18, 2017 in Entertainment
‘The Great Wall’ is a Chinese-American co-production that fails to successfully combine the two distinct storytelling styles.
A recent trend in movies and books has seen creators rewriting classic fiction or history to include an undocumented supernatural element. Two of the most popular examples of this genre are Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. It seems now the latest focus of these imaginative energies may be the Seven Wonders of the World, beginning in China with a concept initially formed in collaboration with Max Brooks. While most people believe the barrier was erected to keep out the invading Mongolians, The Great Wall supposes there was an even larger threat from which it was meant to protect the country.
William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are former soldiers travelling the east in search of exploding “black powder.” Their travels land them at the base of a massive wall that extends beyond what the eyes can see and is guarded by thousands of Chinese soldiers preparing for battle. Eventually they are swarmed by giant, murderous beasts that attack every 60 years in an effort to breach the city. William’s skills prove useful in defeating the horde, and he is accepted by General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing). Meanwhile, Tovar plots with the stronghold’s only other European occupant, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), to steal the black powder and escape.
The monsters, created by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), are essentially large reptiles that appear to have survived past the age of dinosaurs. The four-legged creatures are massive, yet agile. Their heads present a false face, while their vulnerable eyes can be found nearer their shoulders. There’s also variations in the species that serve different purposes, though they all work together to conquer their human enemies. But in spite of the intelligence they display, they’re basically mindless drones reminiscent of any number of similar creatures that came before.
Director Zhang Yimou is behind three of the most visually impressive Chinese films to reach Western audiences: Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower. Therefore, it’s not surprising there are some truly exceptional sequences in this film. The synchronicity with which the army prepares for the first attack is extraordinary. The drummers deliver the general’s orders via distinctive, coordinated rhythms that echo over the distance and signal the specifically-trained squadrons to move into position; a task they complete in total unison and then remain resolute to the end. Moreover, each unit has a distinctive uniform and colour that enhances the visual effect of the choreography. Before the splendour gives way to carnage, the execution of their assaults is also exquisite with soldiers plunging off the side of the wall in perfect form and hidden, intricately-designed weapons revealing their power in great displays of destruction.
Unfortunately the imagery is not matched by the story, which is choppy and uninteresting. Elements of the characters’ backstories meant to create mystery only leave them feeling underdeveloped. One of the attractions of Chinese epics is the elaborate storylines that support the visual artistry. But the script haphazardly injects necessary details throughout the narrative and throws the characters together without ceremony before launching into the next action scene. Similarly William and Tovar’s exchanges are humorous, but seemingly out-of-place in the context of the film. Rather than build a story around a “traveller” that could be played by a (white) Hollywood actor, it could have focused on the elite army and their struggles to contain the threat for a millennia. As much as writer Tony Gilroy clearly enjoys writing roles for Damon, this one shouldn’t have been about him. Moreover, Dafoe’s character is almost irrelevant in the overall story. The one commendable aspect of the script is the equal treatment of the male and female warriors, particularly the respect given to Commander Lin.
This attempt to marry Western and Chinese heroes and style is simply a failed experiment that would have been better served by going full-tilt, over-the-top Hollywood blockbuster or focusing on the potentially epic story about an elite army finally putting their training to the test.
Director: Yimou Zhang
Starring: Matt Damon, Tian Jing and Willem Dafoe
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