The production of this movie seems weird, to say the least. Director Zhang Yimou is an excellent choice to direct a movie of this nature, a marriage of Hollywood and Chinese cinema; Zhang’s films have received critical acclaim all over the world, with his period drama Ju Dou being the first Chinese film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He is frequently praised for his use of color, and many critics have credited his directorial vision for the quality of his more successful films.
By contrast, the screenplay for this film is credited to three screenwriters from Hollywood, with the story credited to three other people. Writing by collaboration is not unto itself a bad thing, but six is a lot of names for writing one film; Unfortunately for The Great Wall, that really shows.
William (Matt Damon) and his buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal, of Game of Thrones fame) are mercenaries making their way to China in search of black powder to bring back to Europe, which they hope will earn them wealth and martial superiority. Their companions are killed by a mysterious green monster, which William slays by cutting its arm off. When he arrives at the Great Wall with monster arm in tow, Commander Lin (Tian Jing) and the rest of the Nameless Order garrisoned at the wall demand to know how he could have killed the beast by himself. Not long thereafter, the mercenaries see the beasts in action; arriving in a horde and directed by their Queen, they swarm the wall in an attempt to enter China and multiply to sufficient numbers to overrun the world. William must choose whether to join forces with Commander Lin to stop the beasts, which came into being as a punishment for human greed, or whether to assist Tovar and fellow prisoner at the wall Ballard (Willem Dafoe) in stealing the black powder.
Gosh that’s a lot of setup. I didn’t even mention the fact that Commander Lin leads the Crane Corps, a group of women in vibrant blue armor that sort of bungee jump off the side of the wall to slay the beasts with pikes. I didn’t mention the name of the monsters, the Taoties, the General who leads the Nameless Order (regarding Commander Lin as his protege), or the key role that magnets play in the film, which were apparently not commonly used in Imperial China to make compasses for the purposes of this film. I didn’t mention William’s key penchant for archery, or the use of hot air balloons that is key in the climactic sequence. There’s more aside from all of that, even. You can tell six people wrote this movie, because there are six sets of ideas as to what is important. At nearly two and a half hours long, the film manages to feel incomplete despite the number of ideas crammed into its runtime, ill-explained and thematically distracted.
For all of this, however, Zhang does his best to marry the disparate chunks of this screenplay into an integrated whole. While he doesn’t quite succeed, he doesn’t exactly fail, either. His use of color is gorgeous and fantastical, and while it doesn’t quite lift the film out of shades of dark grey and brown at the Wall, it is a welcome visual reprieve from the trend of desaturated desolation that this film might have succumbed to in the hands of another director. He metes the character beats out slowly, attempting to emphasize them even as the clunky dialogue makes them difficult to be invested in. The actors are certainly not to blame for this, applying themselves with as much alacrity and drama as they can muster, but lines like “I’m alive because I trust no one” convey melodrama rather than depth. Zhang hangs on their honest expressions, on the themes of trust and greed and heroism, but the screenplay fails to meet him halfway, pulling itself in three directions as Zhang tries to push it into one.
The tragic fact of The Great Wall is that it feels like entire chunks are missing from the film, as if context and development were intended but never manifest. To the movie’s credit, it specifies that it is within the realm of legend and not fact, but no amount of fantasy can fill these holes. I don’t doubt that there’s a director’s cut of this movie out there somewhere wherein the plot makes greater sense, but it’s certainly not the one that ended up in theaters. There’s potential here that never actualizes, and as a result, one can only shrug as the movie ends, firmly disconnected from the growth of the characters and feeling little at all.Liked This? Share It!