REVIEW – THE GREAT WALL. With Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal. Written by Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy. Directed by Yimou Zhang. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence. 103 minutes.
Yimou Zhang is one of China’s premier directors, having made such notable arthouse staples as “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero,” and “House of Flying Daggers. With THE GREAT WALL, he makes his bid to do a Hollywood film–but on his own terms. Shot in China with a mostly Chinese cast, it features Matt Damon in the lead to give it some starpower in the U.S., along with Willem Dafoe and Pedro Pascal.
The resulting film is an action fantasy that will seem at once familiar and different. The plot will seem very familiar. William (Damon) is a mercenary who is in medieval China to obtain the explosive “black powder” which promises to change warfare. When he and his partner Tovar (Pascal) are captured at the Great Wall, they learn that the wall is to protect the emperor and the capital city from the hordes of the monstrous Tao Tai. These creatures attack every sixty years and even with the massive military might arrayed at this section of the 13,000-plus mile wall, it’s not looking good.
Had this been a conventional Hollywood film, William would be the great savior of the Chinese. Instead, while he offers crucial assistance, he also learns something of their ways, and the true hero of the story is Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), who leads the women’s forces in leaping off the wall to spear the Tao Tai. Add to this the director’s strong visual style, whether in character moments or shots that potray the vastness of the land and the opposing forces, and you get something that grabs the viewer earlier on and doesn’t let go.
Much of the Chinese cast is well-known at home, if lesser known (or not at all) to American viewers. Tian Jing is lovely yet manages to convey the toughness and dedication of someone who knows nothing but the military life. Andy Lau’s Wang, the strategist for the leaders, and Lu Han, as a soldier wrongly thought to be a coward, are among the standouts. Joining Damon and Pascal among the Westerners is Willem Dafoe as Ballard, who has spent 25 years in captivity and sees the new arrivals as providing a fresh opportunity for escape.
The joys of the film are both visceral and subtle. The fantasy action scenes are thrilling at the Saturday matinee level, particularly one weapon that consists of shears that emerge from the wall and cut the monsters in two. The subtlety is in the interplay between Chinese and Western expectations,both for the characters and for audiences. This is a Chinese/U.S. co-production, which meant it is has to please audiences coming for Matt Damon as well as those who are fans of Tian Jing or singer Lu Han. (By contrast, Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”was a hit in the U.S. and not as successful in China, where audiences found it tamer than homegrown fare.)
China has become an increasingly important market for Hollywood leading to Chinese investment in American movies becoming increasingly important. “The Great Wall” may be the next step in the cinematic collaboration of the two nations, which should be encouraged. Or, as one might say, make movies, not war.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released this month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.