THE GREAT WALL. Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau. Directed by Zhang Yimou. 103 minutes. Rated M (Fantasy themes and violence).
‘The Great Wall’ represents a blending of East and West in more ways than one. Its narrative is told from the perspective of Europeans who stumble into a war between a Chinese army and a supernatural enemy. Its casting reflects this story, with three famous Westerners (Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe) amidst the sprawling Chinese roster spearheaded by Jing Tian. It jumps quickly between English and subtitled Mandarin. More interestingly, it is a joint venture between American and Chinese production companies, and although the script was written by Americans, the film was directed by the acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou in China. Traditionally, Chinese blockbusters are budgeted in the $50-60 million range and their lofty ambitions are hamstrung by economical special effects and slick but cheap-looking production design. By injecting American star power (and the Hollywood money that comes with it), this project avoids these pitfalls, giving us a thrilling and stylish spectacle instead. Its narrative might play it safe, but it looks every bit of the $150+ million budget and that’s high praise indeed.
As far as I can gather, much of the press surrounding the film concerns the casting of star Matt Damon. Such ‘whitewashing’ controversies have had just cause in the past, however I reject it in this instance. He is a white actor playing a white character, William, a European mercenary and master archer with a terribly American-sounding accent travelling east in search of the highly valuable ‘black powder’ that can turn the sky into fire. His sole remaining partner in this journey is Spaniard Tovar (Pedro Pascal), after the others in their band were picked off by tribes in the hills north of China and by a mysterious lizard-like beast that attacked their campsite. William eventually manages to fend off the creature, taking off its large, green and sharply clawed leg with his sword in the process. As William and Tovar ride south the next day, they run up against the Great Wall, introduced in impressive, sweeping wide shots. An army, the Nameless Order, greets them with an array of weapons drawn and takes the pair captive.
During their initial interrogation, Commander Lin of the Crane Troop (a steely Jing Tian) acts as an interpreter, having learned English from Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another European who ventured to China in search of black powder and was never allowed to leave. The discussion is interrupted by a call to arms, as an army of the mysterious monsters that William and Tovar fought in their camp attacks the Wall. The ensuing set piece is terrific – epic and exhilarating and laced through with gorgeous colours often absent from action films. Each Corps of the Nameless Order is colour coded by their function: Eagle Corp archers are in scarlet, Crane Corp bungee-jumping acrobat warriors are in blue, and so on. The monsters, called Tao Tei, look like toothy, emerald hyena-frog hybrids, with their eyes set back on their front shoulders. Swarming hordes of Tao Tei flood the walls, clambering over each other to leap onto the battlements where foot soldiers await them. It is in this crucible of battle that William and Tovar prove themselves.
As with many directors versed in the wuxia film tradition, Yimou understands how to craft a sequence that is thrilling and immersive yet utterly stylish. Interesting use of slow-motion and POV shots from items like arrows or a warrior’s breastplate create plenty of ‘wow’ moments, yet he maintains the audience’s understanding of where the important moving pieces are at any given time. The other noteworthy element that comes across in these moments is the use of an enormous number of extras, all clad in beautiful costumes and armed with impressive handmade weapons. They rarely make films of this scale so practically and it manages to ground the film despite the plethora of CGI-monsters encircling our heroes.
To those that fear that this is a tale about white men swooping in to save Eastern civilisation, I say this: Damon’s William learns far more from Commander Lin and her offsider Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) than he offers in return. As Tovar and Sir Ballard push William to steal some black powder and escape back to Europe with them, he is torn by what he has learned from his new comrades – Chinese values like trust and sacrifice and loyalty. The screenplay from Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy (from a story crafted by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz) takes great pains to hit the expected marks. Damon has some quasi-brotherly moments with a soldier punished for his perceived cowardice (Zheng Kai) and the banter between William and Tovar is engineered to be gritty and droll: ‘Do you think they’ll hang us now?’ asks William, ‘I could use the rest’ says Tovar. Much like the titular structure, the script is far from subtle.
In the end, viewers should seek ‘The Great Wall’ out if they want to be introduced to the potential of Chinese cinema when melded with Hollywood talent and money. This marriage of East and West is successful enough that it will likely be the first of many more and I, for one, am excited to see what the future holds.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out February 16.