Great Wall, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/24/17 15:54:30
(Worth A Look)
I had a whole opening paragraph about how even the animation of the studio logo at the start of "The Great Wall" served to illustrate how the current attempts to engineer world-wide hits that played equally well in China and the West was a fool’s errand, but then something unexpected happened: The movie was kind of fun. Sure, in some ways director Zhang Yimou and his pan-Pacific team sometimes stumble into a good time, but it’s mostly a matter of creating an amusing, pulpy adventure story rather than getting caught up in what the producers have riding on their work.It kicks off from the Western perspective, with a group of mercenaries having rode six months and lost many of their party in an attempt to reach China and acquire their mysterious “black powder” superweapon, but their numbers are cut even further when they’re attacked, and good fortune leaves just William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) alive, with a severed arm that is not human and green blood on on William’s sword. Fortunately, they reach the immense Great Wall of China soon after that, and while General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) leans toward killing the outsiders, Strategist Wang (Andy Lau Tak-wah) thinks that what they’ve seen could be useful in the fight against the monstrous Tao-Tie. Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) needs to be convinced, while William and Tovar can’t help but notice that the other Westerner there, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), hasn’t been allowed to leave since he came on a similar quest decades ago. The three of them may be able to escape if they work together, but William is starting to see a nobility in this fight.
These sort of clash-of-culture stories can be difficult balancing acts; one only has to look back a couple of weeks to the twin “Chinese guys have adventures in India” movies that came out for the lunar new year to see how easy it is to stumble into banal platitudes or tacky caricatures. Zhang mostly keeps the “clash” part of it low-key, letting Matt Damon show how impressed William is at the scale of the Wall and skill of the army within it via glances that are more curious than wide-eyed. There’s an elegance to how Zhang and the Western writers generally tend to build the film around celebrating the Chinese values of stability and everybody pulling in the same direction while still finding ways for William’s out-of-the-box thinking to be a major contribution without ever elevating one too far over the other, let alone making on-screen points about it. That William and Lin are going to have to learn to work together and bring their unique talents to bear on the problem is a given; that they’ll just do it without anybody making a speech about it is certainly not.
That casual-seeming attitude makes the film breezier than it might have been, even if the characters’ banter is often done in their second languages or for a director whose command of the primary language used is limited, as Zhang’s English may be. For instance, Matt Damon is a fine actor in many respects, but his range for accents is roughly Southie to Somerville, and it’s a toss-up whether he stumbles in his attempt to do an English accent or whether Zhang went with the takes that had the best rhythms to a Mandarin-speaker. He still plays well off Pedro Pascal; William and Tovar seem to have the right level of fondness for each other as longstanding comrades in a life where one must be generally cynical. Jing Tian does very well to make Lin passionate about her duty and curious about William despite being the professional who must occasionally be rigid. Andy Lau doesn’t quite make it obvious that he is a major star in China as Wang - it both is and isn’t surprising that this is apparently his first English-language production, despite being as big a star as Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat for roughly the same period - although he’s certainly grown on the audience by the time the big monster battle comes and puts him in danger.
And, yes, the monster stuff is a lot of fun. It never hurts to have WETA as the first effects house credited in a creature-heavy movie, and the Tao-Tie have nifty designs, in many cases pointedly lacking a neck so that the obvious move from the legions of guys with swords is off the table and in others able to deploy neck fringes like shields. They’re written and animated with enough animal cunning as the humans will have to outsmart them but not so clever that one starts to think about them as people. Zhang’s action movies have always been especially gorgeous to look at, and this is no exception, with its legions of color-coded soldiers filling shots that look gorgeous blown up to Imax 3D and fight scenes that are well-choreographed even if they aren’t full-on martial-arts extravaganzas. Without looking down on the material, he seems well aware of the absurdity of it, dropping offbeat bits into the middle of the big action scenes without undercutting them.One of those come at the end of the grand finale which, by blockbuster standards, fairly efficient, and that efficiency is another thing to be appreciated about the film: At an hour and forty-four minutes, it avoids a lot of bloat that many effects-filled blockbusters of its ilk. Sometimes that means cutting things a bit short, but more often it keeps the film from collapsing under the weight of expectations that executives on two continents must have for it. Amusing eccentricity may not have been the virtue that the makers were planning for this movie, but it’s the reason why it winds up rather entertaining.
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|