The Great Wall (2016)

1,700 years to build. 5,500 miles long. What were they trying to keep out?

How’s this for a concept — the frenetic big creature battles of Starship Troopers (1997) meets the scope and majesty of ancient China! Cool huh? Throw into the mix the luscious eye for design that respected director Zhang Yimou, House of Flying Daggers (2004), usually brings to the table, along with a healthy U.S. budget and leading star Matt Damon, Jason Bourne (2016). It’s all very promising. The trouble with The Great Wall, ironically, begins once the plot is made clear, as it becomes plainly apparent that the many talented hands involved in the project were never quite sure where they wanted to take their idea. ‘So what’s it about, exactly?’

Bourne in the East

In ancient China, desperate mercenaries William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) have been searching for a substance called ‘black powder.’ Pursued by bandits, they manage to find temporary refuge in a cave where they are attacked by a fast-moving monster, whose arm they manage to sever. Eventually stumbling upon the Great Wall, they are taken prisoner by a secret military group, the Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau).

Soon, a large battle erupts, revealing the hidden enemy — a band of creatures dubbed the Tao Tie — with the fearless Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) heading a rather acrobatic, all-female division of the assault. After the chaos, William and Tovar encounter awkward European prisoner Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who had also been searching for black powder and had since discovered the Order’s secret storeroom of the stuff. But, as William spends more time learning about the sacrificial philosophy of the Order (through Commander Lin Mae), the outside danger becomes more threatening with William finding himself a key player in the ongoing fight.

First, the cool stuff. The beasts themselves are mean-looking critters indeed — designed by those talented folks over at Weta Workshop — wolf-like temperaments in lion-sized lizard bodies with rows of shredding teeth. Communicating as a horde (like ants), these creatures are a formidable foe for the brave Chinese forces. That said, I was kinda hoping for giant dragons, but they’re actually quite respected in Chinese culture, so that may’ve irked the Eastern producers. Oh well.

Meh. I’ve seen bigger.

Credit must also go to Yimou’s handling of the action sequences, which attempt to mix things up and keep proceedings interesting. The entire first battle is a showstopper — introducing us to the big threat in an appropriately prolonged epic fashion — while a mist-covered skirmish on the ground, once again, utilizes the director’s attention to intricate sound design, aided by talented sound designer Krysten Mate, Tomorrowland (2015). Unfortunately, it’s in the last act that things begin to get silly, for reasons I can’t divulge without venturing into spoiler territory — suffice to say, for an apparently ‘smart’ species, the Tao Tie make some surprisingly stupid choices.

A quick glance at the story credits reveals that no less than six writers were on board, with a team of three carving out the story — frequent collaborators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016), along with Max Brooks, World War Z (2013), the latter two being particularly talented. Then, on the actual screenwriting front, there are another three — duo Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) and Tony Gilroy, Rogue One (2016) — Gilroy being the most dependable of the lot.

I’m assuming what must’ve happened was that the solo writers (in Brooks and Gilroy) were only brought on board to polish the story in its different stages, because I cannot, for the life of me, see them penning such an underwhelming ‘been there, done that’ grand finale. Herskovitz and Zwick may’ve borrowed a little from their own previous collaboration The Last Samurai (2003), in which an American (Tom Cruise) finds himself siding with the Japanese during a war, but I feel that the most ho-hum aspects of the journey probably stem from Bernard and Miro. If you look at their filmography — failed videogame adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) and their D.O.A. remake of the magnificent Korean horror A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) dubbed The Uninvited (2009) — it becomes quite evident that they are most likely the ones to blame.

‘I trained with Cirque du Soleil’

You might be wondering why I’ve yet to question director Yimou’s handling of the material. Well, when a celebrated director from the East is invited to crack the mainstream Western market, results usually vary, meaning that they’re most likely handicapped by the English language or tied-down by the big studio’s demands. I’m thinking of John Woo — who managed one knock-out with the berserk action-thriller Face/Off (1997) then was subsequently neutered to a degree with Tom Cruise’s ‘look at me, Ma, I’m a cool action hero!’ fest Mission: Impossible II (2000). Of course, there are always exceptions, but I feel that the inclusion of Yimou was largely about offering the American studio Legendary a gateway into the notoriously strict conditions of the Chinese film market and of course, an opportunity to make a handsome looking film. Yimou’s realization is certainly entertaining enough, though hardly up to the jaw-dropping heights of his past epics — Hero (2002), being one of my all time faves.

I’m probably being way too cynical and making this film sound completely terrible — my apologies. There is still plenty of Saturday night popcorn fun to be had, even if I believe that more could’ve been done with the whole thing. Think about it — the marketing did such a great job of building intrigue as to what the Great Wall was keeping out, the flick hinting at hidden secrets within the giant icon itself. The resulting story isn’t especially invested in exploiting either of these mysteries, with most of the time spent on what should be a personal dilemma for our protagonist, William — to resume his old, desperate life and long friendship with Tovar or to sacrifice himself and fight the good fight for all of humanity. It exists in the narrative, certainly Commander Lin Mae has a big talk about it in a scene, but it’s all so surface level and never truly feels as potent as it should.

What a lovely (violent) morning for a quaint balloon ride …

Part of this vapid nature flows into the acting as well, because, what can you do with so little? Matt Damon is fine, Pedro Pascal, The Adjustment Bureau (2011) is actually rather annoying, while poor Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man (2002), looks as confused as a lost dog searching for its home. Faring far better is the Eastern front with the dependable Andy Lau, Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), delivering a firm presence (as always) and Hanyu Zhang, The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014), who appears as though he’s been grinded down by the war. I felt the highlight was rising star Tian Jing, Kong: Skull Island (2017), who actually has a lot of heavy lifting to do (that’s when she’s not looking great while kicking ass), having to explain the Nameless Order’s philosophy to a bemused Matt Damon — a tall order indeed.

In summary, The Great Wall is not as terribly bold or as original as one would hope, however, there’s still enough big screen monster action to ensure a good time, the film, at least, demonstrating some of the possibilities for an East-West co-production. I just hope that future films of this ilk embrace more unique narrative opportunities and tell stories that make the most of both cultures. And hey, can we get a better climax next time, too!

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

The Great Wall is released through Universal Pictures Australia