January 6, 2017 by bck1402
Several years (decades) ago, Micheal Crichton wrote a deconstructed version of the Beowulf mythology called “Eaters of the Dead” where a traveller from a foreign land ends up in a Viking village that is supposedly terrorised by monsters. The travellers ends up helping the villagers, and discovers more about these ‘monsters’. It was made into a movie, “The 13th Warrior” starring Antonio Banderas. The Great Wall has its roots in the same Beowulf mythology with Matt Damon’s soldier/thief/trader wandering into a kingdom fighting monsters, and ends up helping them in the fight.
What surprised me wasn’t Damon’s casting but rather the talent behind the cameras. From the story contributors including Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (The Last Samurai) to the screenplay by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum/Legacy, Rogue One) and music by Game of Thrones composer, Ramin Djawadi, there was a sense that this was a story that could have taken place almost anywhere else, especially given one very odd plot device. As I mentioned, it’s a variation in the Beowulf myth. In the hands of director Zhang Yimou, this is a very grand Chinese epic, albeit on a rather scaled scope. With the titular Wall spanning several miles across China, we’re focussed on a small portion facing a particular valley where the creatures called Tau Tai would swarm through. Still, with what looks like hundreds of extras making up the army defending the Wall, ‘epic’ comes to mind.
While much of the movie is in English, and having Mat Damon’s wavering mid-European accent disappearing somewhere halfway through, the main plot and story is in Mandarin care of majority of the main cast. Sure there are some socio-political undertones that most viewers are going to put to it, and despite how looks, this is very much a Chinese production. It simply lacks the depth we’ve come to expect from a movie by Zhang Yimou. Again, it could simply be that the original script wasn’t likely to have been set in China, but I wouldn’t know for sure.
While director Zhang manages to wrangle his main cast and the numerous extras, the CG effects occasionally jar be it the environmental landscapes of the horde of creatures. The design of the monsters is different enough to give us something different from expected although some may feel like they popped out of some video game. The varying quality of the effects throughout the movie is something that has been plaguing the movies out of China of late. They serve their purpose in preventing the idea or concept within the movie, but it also broaches the Uncanny Valley something fierce. The rest of the design work, from sets, to costumes and action choreography make up for the shortcomings.
In all, the fantasy is entertaining, the adventure is raucous, and the movie is a visual feast for the most part. The cast do well with Tian Jing and Andy Lau being natural standouts. Damon’s character is naturally the Western audiences eyes into this mysterious kingdom and the unnatural happenings. If you allow it, it’s an enjoyable romp.
Rating ***1/2 / 5
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Stars Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Eddie Pang, Lu Han, Kenny Lim and Willem Dafoe