“The Great Wall” is more than just an action film. It is the first major co-production between Chinese and American production studios and is essentially the test run for whether major Chinese projects can be successful in the United States.
Accordingly, “The Great Wall” was graced with the largest budget ever for a Chinese film to date, a legendary director in Yimou Zhang (“House of Flying Daggers,” as well as the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics) and a trio of well-known American actors — Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem DaFoe — to supplant the extensive and talented Chinese cast.
What is accomplished with all that firepower? Unfortunately, not a whole lot. Admittedly, that “unfortunate” is more a yearning than a complaint, as Zhang guides us through a purely enjoyable action film with a steady hand and his characteristic flair for bright, saturated color that made “House of Flying Daggers” so breathtaking. He also has a keen sense for battle sequences, a far cry from the choppy, close-up, cut-every-punch style of American action films where we can’t tell what the hell is going on — hint, hint, “Transformers.” That’s you.
There’s a beauty in watching whole bodies move from the wide angle, and the scenery of “The Great Wall” brings to mind the wide, sweeping shots of the car chases in the Namibian desert in George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The innovative battle mechanisms, such as soldiers with spears performing acrobatic bungee jumps from the top of the wall, recall that film as well — in particular, the viscerality of the polecats and in-air stunts.
The comparison brings back the feelings of unfulfillment, though. Ironically, the polecat acrobats in “Mad Max: Fury Road” were trained in Chinese pole work. That film, despite being saturated with high-octane action, is at once beautiful, gripping, awe-inspiring and emotional. Despite having a protagonist who barely speaks, “Mad Max: Fury Road” places more emotion into Max’s journey than “The Great Wall” ever places into William’s (Matt Damon).
And speaking of leads, Matt Damon is not particularly compelling as the English mercenary on the hunt for black powder. The lack of an emotional core in “The Great Wall” is partially because of Damon’s character lacking a sense of purpose or desire; his desire for gunpowder seems halfhearted at best and the “conflicts” presented in his desires fizzle under the inevitability of his actions. There’s no real emotional struggle here.
It’s also partially because of Damon’s acting, which, in this role, falls flat of charisma save for a few golden moments near the end. His costar Pedro Pascal is actually a more evocative actor, despite having a cringingly stereotypical role to fill in as comic relief and not having a significant amount of screen time.
The success of this film — unlike Chinese market-dominated releases such as “World of Warcraft,” which flopped in the States — was supposed to be predicated on an extensive marketing campaign. The movie certainly entered the press, but not for the reason the producers had hoped, as the first trailer launched a firestorm of criticism over the casting of Matt Damon in a movie about the Great Wall of China, forcing both Damon and Zhang to defend the decision.
Ultimately, the claims of whitewashing were overhyped; Damon is not cast as Asian, his character’s Eastern travel is an important plot point and he is not painted as a white savior. In fact, his badassery is just about on par, if not subpar to the Chinese leads in the film. In the climactic moment of the film, it is the Chinese commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) who succeeds where Damon’s character fails. To tell the truth, just about the only thing the wall defenders need Damon for is, and don’t question this, the random magnetic rock he’s carrying.
It would be nice to complain that the unwarranted backlash against the film will tarnish its profits in the United States, but ultimately its lack of a coherent core is what will drive most of the reception towards “mediocre.” The mechanics of an action-monster-film are executed with a fair amount of precision, and the film makes several choices to resist cliche: the monsters are revealed early on and without much suspense, painting them as a purely military foe; the film avoids a romantic subplot where it would not have had time for one; the Chinese characters actually speak Chinese, thank God; and most importantly, the climactic save-all when the odds seem lowest is still believable, compared to some of the groan-inducing deus ex machinas of late.
“The Great Wall” is a solid, entertaining action flick, on par with its Hollywood counterparts and perhaps, in some ways, more enjoyable. At the very least, it is educational and refreshing; Chinese culture is on display along with the Chinese method of film production — a boon, since no one wants to see another “Jack Reacher.”
But it isn’t great, and it could have been — that’s the frustrating part. The pieces are all there, but the scale is too large and the characters too shallow. It may be unfair, but given the talents of Zhang and a cast that includes Andy Lau (“House of Flying Daggers”), Zhang Hanyu and Lin Gengxin (“The Taking of Tiger Mountain”) and Jing Tian — not to mention an array of well-known U.S. and Chinese cinematographers and production designers — it’s warranted to ask for a spark of something other than generic action.
But this is, in a way, a test run. The positive elements of the film point to the possibility of a brighter future for international film collaborations and the freshness their perspectives can bring to a stale Hollywood culture of concept recycling.
“The Great Wall” is currently playing at AMC Bay Street 16.