Tuesday, February 21, 2017

In Theaters: THE GREAT WALL (2016)

(US/China - 2016; US release 2017)

Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy. Cast: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Jing Tian, Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe, Zhang Hanyu, Lu Han, Eddie Peng, Lin Gengxin, Junkai Wang, Zheng Kai, Xuan Huang, Pilou Asbaek, Yiu Xintian, Liu Qiong. (PG-13, 103 mins)

The prolific Zhang Yimou is arguably the most famous figure in the Chinese film industry, his filmography a mix of serious human drama (his numerous collaborations with Gong Li, the Meryl Streep of China, include 1987's RED SORGHUM, 1990's JU DOU, 1991's RAISE THE RED LANTERN, 1994's TO LIVE, and 1995's SHANGHAI TRIAD) and some of the best post-CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON wuxia epics like 2002's HERO, 2004's HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, and 2007's CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. He was also commissioned to direct the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and that experience was a major influence on his latest film THE GREAT WALL, which already became a blockbuster in Asia over the 2016 holiday season and is just now being released stateside. An epic $150 million co-production with Universal and Legendary that currently ranks as the most expensive Chinese film ever made, it doesn't represent the serious and "important" side of Zhang, but offers briskly-paced entertainment and stunning eye candy. It's filled with bright colors, large-scale and often jawdropping action sequences, and it allows Zhang to have a lot of fun with 3-D as arrows, swords, axes, flaming cannonballs and CGI monsters fly off the screen and into your face, just as 3-D should.

It also offers the jarring sight of Matt Damon in a medieval Asian period epic set in the 11th century, and his involvement in the film has generated some controversy over potential "whitewashing." Considering the film is pure fantasy inspired by a legend of the Great Wall of China, the "white savior" notion seems absurd to bring up in this context and only seems to be a thorn in the side of those looking for something to find offensive. Damon is William, a soldier of fortune who, along with his cohort Tovar (Pedro Pascal, memorable as Oberyn Martell on GAME OF THRONES), are in search of black powder when they're attacked by a creature in the night that takes a tumble down a cliff after William hacks off its reptilian, claw-like appendage. They're captured by soldiers of The Nameless Order, a fortress along the Great Wall overseen by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu). One of Shao's underlings, Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), and top adviser Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) speak English, and after some initial misgivings, Wang concludes they're telling the truth about the attack. Shao's forces know of the creatures: the Nameless Order is a secret sect devoted to preparing and training to repel the onslaught of the Tao Tei--reptilian, lizard-like alien monsters that rise every 60 years. Shao has no intention of ever letting them leave, but when William and Tovar prove themselves adept with weaponry, they join in the fight against the Tao Tei, who attack in a horde as far as the eye can see, all under the radar-like control of their "queen."

The CGI has its dodgy moments, but the visual effects are mostly top-notch, with an appropriate level of gross-out digital splatter involving the green-blooded Tao Tei. Zhang seems more concerned with the spectacular presentation of the military pageantry, from the five color-coordinated factions of the Nameless Order and their various inspired weapons to some innovative battle sequences with female bungee jumpers diving off bows perched off the fortress to man-powered, oscillating rotor blades that emerge from the Great Wall to slice and dice Tao Tei as they ascend the wall. Damon's William is an active participant later on, but mostly he spends his time marveling at the Nameless Order's brilliant display of battle might and making goo-goo eyes at Lin Mae while never really nailing down whatever accent he's trying to use. It's a wildly inconsistent Irish brogue that vacillates between the more plausible Pierce Brosnan/Brendan Gleeson side of things but occasionally veers off into full-on, "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral" QUIET MAN territory.

It doesn't help the stalled romance subplot that Damon has more chemistry with Pascal than with Jing. The script--credited to Damon's BOURNE buddy Tony Gilroy and NARCOS creators Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, with Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and World War Z author Max Brooks sharing story credit based on a earlier draft that wasn't used--seems to be bringing William and Lin Mae together but it never happens, while there's some funny banter and ballbusting between William and Tovar (Tovar: "You think they'll hang us now?" William: "I could use the rest"). Lau (who starred in the 2002 Hong Kong cop thriller INFERNAL AFFAIRS, which was remade in the US in 2006 as THE DEPARTED with Damon essaying his role) brings appropriate gravitas to his role as the practical and wise Strategist Wang and Asian pop star Lu Han has some heartfelt moments as a quiet soldier whose bravery is constantly being called into question by people who never see his heroic actions. There's also American guest star Willem Dafoe, underused in a minor supporting role as Ballard, a scheming westerner who was captured 25 years earlier by the Nameless Order during his search for black powder and has been held prisoner to ensure the purpose of the sect is kept secret. He accepts his fate to teach English to the warriors, but sees William and Tovar as a possible means of escape. In the end, THE GREAT WALL is a triumph of style over substance, brainless B-movie material that's heavy on stylized CGI, elevated considerably by inventive action choreography and entertaining usage of 3-D, and brilliant cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (BLACKHAT) and frequent Zhang collaborator Zhao Xiaoding.

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