Spectacular Action Fantasy
Let's first have the discussion about the 500-lb gorilla in the room. He's sitting right over there between "big box office money" and "who cares?" Of course, I'm speaking of the controversy swirling around the appearance of a very white man (Matt Damon) as the hero who arrives on a horse to save the day for China in Zhang Yimou's new film called The Great Wall. Let's all just cool our jets and consider that the Chinese film director knows what he's doing. After all, doesn't he deserve that bit of leniency from us as he has more than proven his talents with such brilliant films as Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and House of Flying Daggers (2004)?
Though it doubles as a bit of a sad commentary on the cultural bias of the American filmgoer, there's a big reason Damon is in the film: because the movie cost upwards of $150 million to make; and because Damon will put plenty of American butts in the seats. Plain and simple. Yes, he stands out like a sore thumb, and no, he doesn't ruin the film. Besides, it is silly to be bothered by such anachronisms in a film about monsters.
Now, with that out of the way, let's talk about how badly this film could have gone and why it didn't. First of all, the trailers do the film no justice. In what is typically a death sentence for any film, it is shot almost entirely on a green screen stage. Though some of the CGI is a bit shaky in places, this entire production is an absolutely beautiful symphony of color, sound, action, and legend -- something we don't get from the trailers. Sure, it's as dumb as hell and about as subtle as an anvil to the side of the head, but beneath Zhang's skillful hand, the beauty of violence and destruction flow like ancient Chinese poetry. Green screen productions aren't supposed to look this seamless.
The film's opening frames tout the greatness of the actual Great Wall of China with title cards reminding us that the wall is more than 5,000 miles long and took more than 1700 years to build. Think about that for a minute. Had we Americans begun building our border wall when we first declared independence from England, it would currently only stretch from San Diego to the edge of New Mexico.
Title cards further tell us that no one really knows why the wall was built, but that this story will focus on one of the many legends about the wall: that it was built to keep out the evil Tao Tei, a breed of ancient, mythical beasts living deep within the Jade Mountain that rises every 60 years for eight days to feed upon humanity and to punish mankind's greed.
At about the same the Tao Tei are awakening from their 60-year slumber, man-bunned barbarian and master archer William Garin (Matt Damon) and his sidekick Tovar (Pedro Pascal) stumble upon the heavily-guarded wall fortress while searching the China countryside for the fabled black powder they hope to take back with them as the "holy grail" of war, a deadly treasure for which they are willing to die.
Having surrendered themselves to the army of unknown warriors called the Nameless Order, William and Tovar are kept shackled and are interrogated at a tribunal led by a trio of leaders inside the stone barricade. But before one can say "I'll huff and I'll puff," the Tao Tei are on the offensive as they attack the wall in massive numbers.
What ensues is an epic battle to protect China's homeland from the invading monsters whose three-tiered attack force and telepathic mentality might just prove too much for China's defenses and may put William and Tovar's honor above wealth and fame.
Undoubtedly, most of the film's best moments come from Zhang's spectacularly choreographed battle sequences. Female acrobatic warriors called the Crane Corps -- led by Commmander Lin (Jing Tian) -- seemingly fly through the air as they battle the raptor-like creatures. In addition, well-trained archers fling their deadly barrage of arrows with surgical skill, while another platoon catapults huge, flaming spiked balls over the wall to wreak mass destruction on the herds of attacking monsters. They are all commanded by a color-coded signal corps who beckon the forces with carefully timed tympanic drum beats. Taken with a healthy suspension of disbelief, this is all just fun stuff to watch. I highly recommend checking out the 3D iMax version of the film as it is the best way to experience the fantasy war action -- which is the only real reason to see this picture in the first place. Well, that and for the monsters -- thousands of them... and those teeth.
The Great Wall, a violent film with plenty of gruesome monster deaths and buckets of green blood, is also a beautiful love letter to Chinese culture which celebrates color, sound, myth, and the allure of legendary tales. You'll be awed by Zhang's foray into commercial cinema.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.