Zhang Yimou’s first English-language film, The Great Wall (2016) will more than likely not go down in film history as a goliath of the movie trade. Although, for an action movie it certainly makes its case as a fun and flashy blockbuster.
My initial expectation for the film was that it would be a superficial, no substance, action movie with overzealous special effects and CGI. The plot and any type of philosophical depth, I also suspected, would be lacking. Although it seems like an unfair straw man argument to knock an action movie for something it never set out to be. It was never intended, as most blockbuster action films do not, to be a complex film. However, as we saw earlier this year in Thor: Ragnarok, it isn’t necessarily impossible for action movies to find a nice mix of plot and philosophic breadth.
I also hoped that the movie would stay as authentically Chinese as possible. Sometimes movies that are based on non-white America cultures become white-washed or white characters unauthentically become the main focus. It seemed to stay comfortably in the realm of Chinese focus. The movie also did well to keep the languages separate. One of the back-pocket rants I have stored away concerns stories that have characters, even though they should be speaking different languages, speaking English with one another. The Great Wall however, steered clear of this usual pitfall for the most part.
Let’s get to the meat of it though, what makes this cinema salient? What makes it good? The strongest leg that it stands on is its visual artistry. A few scenes scattered throughout were visually awe-inspiring like the shot of the make-shift hot air balloons hovering in a brilliantly orange sunset sky. The most visually beautiful scene of the film happens towards the end of the film in the tower of stained-glass windows. The light pouring in manifests in a myriad of colors which beautify an otherwise potentially dull scene.
The only truly high-quality part of the film is another branch of its visual artistry. The costume design is fantastic. The vibrant, bright, and demanding colors of the various corps of the Nameless Order strike out at the eyes for a visual feast. The gold of the forbidden palace, and their robes, also catches the eye. The actual design of the costumes seem to be creative yet appropriate as well.
One non-visual point that I found redeeming was the character development of Peng Yong (played by actor Han Lu), the initially frightful black-clad Bear corps member. His path to courage was that of an underdog. I felt it was easy for the audience to connect with him and thus have some amount of catharsis upon his self-sacrificing suicide. His development reminds one of Desmond T. Doss in Hacksaw Ridge. Although by no means does Peng Yong’s story fully meet with the same emotion and passion that Doss’s story brings about.
Finally, the drum scenes must be applauded as they were auditorily pleasing and culturally specific to China.
However, beyond these few good qualities, there lay some truly bad ones. Let us begin with the first failure of the film. The introduction of the Tao t Tieh monsters lacked the type of awe that good action movies tend to instill and spoiled the tension that could have forced movie-goers to emote. The director should have used this opportunity to scare the audience, to bring them to their attention. Displaying the, creatures all at once in a fearsome glory, could have brought the audience into the movie. But the chance was wasted for a plot device that allowed the Nameless Order to believe the Westerners’ tale of ambush by the monsters.
Plot, is always a good yardstick by which to measure cinema. Unfortunately, The Great Wall comes up short here. There are no great reveals, no set up for later buy out, no mysterious rising action, or particularly shocking climax. Even the one interesting plot point, the commander’s death, seems unbelievable and almost like an afterthought. The audience had no build up or tension. They weren’t connected well enough to the character to care.
The romance between Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and William (Matt Damon) was drawn out, trite, cliché, and decidedly uninspiring. A manufactured lackluster attraction added for almost no other reason than that one character was the leading male, and the other was the leading female character. Romances are alluring to movie-makers because of the innate passion and intrigue that can stem from them is an easy way to make a movie more interesting. But, if the relationship built between the two people doesn’t seem genuine, or has no buy-in, the connection between the lovers’ story and the audience is never cultivated or is lost. It seems like most blockbusters these days try this tactic. Every movie does not need love or sex to make it appealing. Coasting on unearned synthetic love has become a disturbing trend in the movie world. Just like in most of the other blockbuster movies romance appears in, it fails here as well.
The dry and overly ironic attempts at humor in the film, especially the European characters, also force it even farther into the cliché bin of action movies. What makes comedy work is a subconscious, or conscious, logic. Things are funny in movies, when they make sense or click with the audience, in different ways. In this movie the attempts at comedy have no edge. The comedy in this film is low in quantity but created a glaring failure that distracted from the movie.
Even the action scenes in this movie, while not completely worthless, felt played out. No tension or awe could be felt in them. Visually they just seemed off and unbelievable. Honestly the whole thing felt like a generic video game was turned into a movie. It has no direction and only relys on the action other trinkets to get through.
Overall The Great Wall is a temperate action movie. It is a good baby step for a new English-language director. The movie approaches the action fantasy genre with a substantial degree of artistry and a tact for the aesthetic. But, it is hindered by an average plot, a lack of catharsis, and poor movie-specific choices. If you have a lazy Saturday afternoon and just want to watch something with bright colors to take your mind off the world, this is the movie for you. It’s fun enough to be distracting but don’t expect a cinematic treat. I give it a 3/5 rating.