Susan Granger’s review of “The Great Wall” (Universal Pictures/Legendary Entertainment)
Filmed entirely in China, this epic, $150 million action/adventure/fantasy was designed to stun the Western world like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000).
Directed by Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”), who orchestrated the opening and concluding ceremonies of Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Summer Games, it relates a 12th century Chinese legend.
Riding on horseback through the Gobi desert, European mercenary William Garin (Matt Damon) and his sidekick Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) evade nomads in the rugged steppes while searching for “black powder”(gunpowder) which will change the future of war.
When they’re taken prisoner by The Nameless Order, headed by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) and Commander Ling (Jing Tian), they discover that the Great Wall was not erected to protect from foreign invaders. It’s a fortress against hordes of ravenous, dinosaur-like creatures – the mythical Tao Tei – that attack every 60 years.
Created by Industrial Light & Magic, the pageantry of first battle scene is awesome. The massive formations of the elite military garrison are color-coded: crimson archers with massive crossbows and a bright blue Crane Corps of spear-toting, female aerialists, secured by cables, bungee-jumping down the wall to stab the reptiles.
Lurking within is another Western captive, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who helps Tovar plan an escape. And the aerial conclusion, involving hot-air balloons, is dazzling.
“The biggest challenge was integrating the two cultures,” Zhang Yimou says. “So we spent a lot of energy and time working on the story.”
Working from an ambitious screenplay by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, based on a simple story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the plot is straightforward with little or no character development and dialogue that’s bizarrely peppered with contemporary phrases. 80% is in English, 20% in subtitled Mandarin.
His social consciousness raised, Garin eventually acknowledges the Chinese army’s altruism with its principled culture of “trust,” celebrating the cohesive unit over capitalism and individuality.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Great Wall” is a sumptuous 6, a visual spectacle.