The Great Wall de­fies ex­pec­ta­tions

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - KATIE WALSH

The buzz on “The Great Wall” has been less ex­cite­ment and more puz­zle­ment and con­tro­versy. What pro­ject re­quired Matt Da­mon to rock that man bun for years? Why does the poster for a movie called “The Great Wall” (as in China) have a huge pic­ture of a white guy on it? All is now re­vealed, and “The Great Wall” de­fies any ex­pec­ta­tions — it’s ab­so­lutely bonkers wild.

The Chi­nese film mar­ket is in­creas­ingly in­flu­en­tial in Hol­ly­wood, with Chi­nese fi­nanc­ing flow­ing to a di­verse ar­ray of U.S. projects, and stu­dio films in­creas­ingly cater­ing to the tastes of Chi­nese au­di­ences, re­sult­ing in more ac­tion, more spec­ta­cle, more hu­mour. “The Great Wall” seems like a real U.S.China co-pro­duc­tion, fea­tur­ing Da­mon, di­rec­tor Zhang Yi­mou and a screen­play about Chi­nese folk­lore cred­ited to a team of Hol­ly­wood screen­writ­ers in­clud­ing Ed Zwick and Tony Gil­roy.

“The Great Wall” opens with some fun facts about the wall — it’s 8,500 kilo­me­tres long, it took 1,700 years to build (which doesn’t bode well for other po­ten­tial walls of this ilk), and there are lots of le­gends. This is just one of them, and it in­volves Matt Da­mon fight­ing space di­nosaurs off the Great Wall. China loves mon­sters (the high­est gross­ing films in China to date are “The Mer­maid” and “Mon­ster Hunt”), so mon­sters they’ll have.

It’s like the bat­tle for Helm’s Deep in “Lord of the Rings,” but with hordes of slob­ber­ing rep­til­ian hye­nas with T-Rex heads in­stead of orcs. They were de­liv­ered to north­ern China via me­teor, and they at­tack ev­ery 60 years as a re­minder that unchecked greed is bad. They have a queen, and she’s hun­gry, all the time.

Da­mon plays Wil­liam, a Western mer­ce­nary with a gar­bled ac­cent (is it Scot­tish? Ir­ish? Is that a hint of Span­ish?), who, in search­ing for “black pow­der,” is taken pris­oner by an im­pres­sively cos­tumed army at the wall, and ends up fight­ing along­side them, much to the cha­grin of his pal Tovar (Pe­dro Pas­cal).

There’s a lot of fun here. Zhang’s visual sig­na­tures are present: au­da­cious colour de­sign, bil­low­ing fabrics, dizzy­ing cam­era work, high­fly­ing ac­ro­bat­ics. The ini­tial dis­play by the Chi­nese army is so im­pres­sive — gi­ant cross­bows op­er­ated by sol­diers in daz­zling crim­son; drum­mers whip­ping com­mands into war skins with blue tas­sels; a high-fly­ing brigade of cerulean-ar­moured, spear-throw­ing fe­male war­riors — that the in­ter­lop­ers just watch in awe. Of course, they can’t help but even­tu­ally butt in with their Western mav­er­ick­ing (Pas­cal ac­tu­ally bull­fights one of the mon­sters).

Af­ter the first act, it’s a bit down­hill, fo­cus­ing less on im­pres­sive army ma­noeu­vres and more on rote in­ter­per­sonal mo­ti­va­tions cou­pled with silly schemes in­volv­ing mag­nets and hot air bal­loons. But when it comes to hero­ics, “The Great Wall” is re­fresh­ingly egal­i­tar­ian. Da­mon’s char­ac­ter is less “white saviour” and more “white helper,” with Lin (Tian Jing) emerg­ing as our hero — poised, tal­ented, a great pony­tail. She’s a pla­tonic equal to Wil­liam, and in this world, there’s no rea­son women can’t be war­riors.

The pe­riod-fan­tasy genre al­lows for rep­re­sen­ta­tions, metaphors and mes­sages that are cur­rently rel­e­vant, about the ben­e­fits of cul­tural interchange — the con­trolled or­der of the Chi­nese army meets the in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic fighter, and they’re stronger to­gether — but also about ruth­lessly unchecked greed, and the fal­li­ble na­ture of walls.


Jing Tian as Com­man­der Lin Mae, Matt Da­mon as Wil­liam Garin, Andy Lau as Strate­gist Wang and Cheney Chen as Im­pe­rial Guard. When it comes to hero­ics, “The Great Wall” is re­fresh­ingly egal­i­tar­ian.

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