Review: The Great Wall [2016]

a review by the Crow.

OPENING THOUGHTS

The Great Wall is the latest offering by director Zhang Yimou. Unlike most of his movies, however, this one is written by a host of Hollywood professionals (including the likes of Edward Zwick(!), Tony Gilroy, and Marshall S. Herskovitz), and is effectively a movie meant for an audience which bridges the gap between American and Chinese film-making.

Now, Yimou’s 2003 movie Hero is one of this crow’s favourite movies ever (which I really should do a review on, soon). That said: while this movie was the subject of some very retarded controversy leading up to its release (and some very valid criticism following its release in reference to a few particular reviewers/ticketing services), I wasn’t all that enthused by it on watching the trailers. It seemed like Yimou – while retaining his signature style – had fallen victim to the age-old killer-of-fine-artists: selling out.

But now that I’ve gone and watched it, putting my fears aside – what did I think?

Well – come, come with me to The Great Corvid Review, and let me tell you what I thought about this latest offering to your corvid gods.


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PLOT

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS [MINOR] SPOILERS

The Great Wall begins with a raggedy band of no-good adventurer types being hunted down by raiding bandits somewhere in China. We quickly find out that our adventurers are out here in search of so-called black powder (gunpowder) – which was indeed invented in China a long, long time ago as far as we know. Amongst these raggedy adventurers are William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (head-squishy guy from Game of Thrones – Pedro Pascal).

While hiding out in a cave to escape the raiders, the party are attacked by a (mostly) unseen monster. William manages to slash the monster’s hand off after it kills everyone apart from him and his bro Tovar. Pocketing the hand so that someone can tell him what in the hell it was that he cleft in twain, the two leg it from the once-again approaching bandits.

Somehow, the two “accidentally” happen across a mostly-fictionalised section of the Great Wall of China. They are hauled in by a strange military organisation that we later find out are called “The Nameless Order”.

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Among the higher-ranking members of this so-called “Nameless Order” (I’m a sucker for names like that) are: General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and Commander Lin (Jing Tian), with two others. Each of these five leads a different company of this Nameless Order, each named after a different kind of creature (see the picture above for their colour-coded armour!). There are the:

  • Bear Troop (led by General Shao): the brawlers, of course.
  • Crane Troop (led by Commander Lin): the wuxia-style bungie-jumping spearwomen of the army (also: cranes are non-passerines, so I don’t much care for the name).
  • Eagle Troop (led by Commander Chen – Lin Gengxin): the archers (again: non-passerines… pfft!)
  • Tiger Troop (led by Commander Wu – Eddie Peng): the “sappers” of this army, from what I understand.
  • Deer Troop (led by a character played by Huang Xian): the cavalry.

Now, to my shame, I had to look up the three names I’d missed earlier, but the movie doesn’t really make each troop clear on a first-viewing, and much less the names of their commanders.

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Now, after hauling our two rogues in, the Nameless Order are surprised to see the severed hand – an indicator that a conflict that they believed was weeks away is already upon them. And almost on cue… the Great Wall comes under attack.

Now, this is no spoiler because the trailers have already shown this in all it’s weirdness, but the Great Wall comes under attack by a horde of Taotie – a monstrous, almost Xenomorph-like species bent on making humans in the area pay. Now, the Taotie are not just some random thing chucked into the movie, but a real – albeit poorly-understood – part of Chinese mythology. During the course of the conflict, the two rogues escape and save the life of hapless Bear-troop soldier Peng Yong (Lu Han) while also taking down one of the Taotie.

Once the Taotie Queen calls off the battle, the two are welcomed warmly by General Shao, and effectively offered integration into the Nameless Order.

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During the course of said battle, the two also catch sight of Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe) – another American-accented “European” knight (I assume) who’s been held by the Nameless Order for about twenty-five years.

Not to go too far into it, but the movie effectively devolves into a popcorn flick about humans vs the Taotie. The subplot regarding the “black powder” is present, but very scantly so.William finds a sort-of a home within the Nameless Order, and apart from him and Lin, we don’t really get much character development.

There’s not much mysterious in the plot. This is the sort of movie that has no secrets hidden away. Nothing is left up in the air. Everything is obvious. And the movie delivers on everything you expect to the best of its ability. It is one of the most linear movies I’ve seen since Avatar. And it does a quite fine job of it, by the end.

Now, to be a bit early with my personal “thoughts”: the plot, overall, I found weak when compared to other movies from the past year. However, while I absolutely hated it for a while, the movie has a massive saving grace that I didn’t quite see until the last half-an-hour or so.

But since we’ve already breached that topic, let’s get on to the…


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d’Aww!

EXECUTION & THIS CROW’S THOUGHTS

Okay, so like I said… I hated this movie, halfway through. It starts out okay-ish, with some lush moments over beautiful hills that look like Cthulu-sized cuts of gravalx, and carries pretty well with the odd touch of wonky (and frankly: adorably “bad”) comedy for some time before things went to pot and I started hating it.

To visualise it, my feelings through this movie went something like this:

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Lazy graph courtesy of nces.ed.gov

You notice that spike at the end? Well, that’s when I realised what this movie was, and how wrong I was about it for so long.

But before we get to that: let’s talk about the technical aspects.

The visuals are pretty amazing, as one expects from a movie by Zhang Yimou. His (and his team’s) use of colour is again bold, but not as garish as in a certain few movies he’s made. Even downtoned, however, the choices in colour are still striking. The direction and the set-pieces are hard to fault. This was a movie meant “to ensure a high quality film reminiscent of Hollywood productions”.

This is Zhang Yimou. Nothing Hollywood churns out on an average basis compares to this man’s everyday work. As a matter of fact, I found the monster effects by ILM to be the weakest part of the movie. Maybe Mr Zhang had something to do with their design, but honestly, they were a little too …garish for me. They didn’t really seem to be integrated into the movie as well as everything else, which surprised me, considering this is ILM.

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It’s not too bad, though. It just looks fake as all heck. However, that ties back into what I originally said was the movie’s “saving grace”.

What I realised, as the movie reached it’s final act, was that this isn’t meant to be a serious balls-to-the-wall action movie. The Great Wall is, rather, a fairy-tale. It’s a modern-day fairy-tale told through the lens of the child of a ménage à trois between Alien, Avatar, and House of Flying Daggers. This is essentially a children’s movie made in the style of an adult action movie.

There isn’t even a romantic subplot, which is something I always am proud of movies for doing. I don’t have anything against the kind of subplot per se, but I abhor it when a movie just shoves it in for no reason. While the characters apart from William Whatever and Commander Lin are not really developed at all, each of them stays true to their archetype. The best one out of them is Peng Yong – who has the most abrupt, but the most touching character-storyline in the movie. Even head-squishy guy’s Tovar is perfect in every scene he appears in because his character is so restrained and kept in tight control.

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Willem Dafoe’s Ballard, might be viewed by some as a failed character, but to use the common phrase: he is what he is. And Willem Dafoe acts out the role brilliantly.

The shining star of the movie is still Jin Tian’s Commander Lin. It’s easy to think it’s not her, but in a way, she really is the central figure. The movie attempts to bridge the gap between these two disparate industries by letting the “other” side in. This movie allows a non-Chinese actor to share the spotlight to get the job done, which is a damn sight better than what Hollywood has managed despite the investment given. And with Zhang Yimou at the helm, it comes off as successful.

Now, to be brutally honest: I don’t view works like this as inherently political. All agendas behind the scenes don’t matter to me unless they influence the movie, and this movie has none of the things that it was criticised for leading up to its release. Those who jumped on the bandwagon should really hang their heads in shame for being such [REDACTED].

No, it’s not the best movie in the world, but the way I’d put it is: it’s a better Avatar than Avatar. I didn’t necessarily hate Avatar, but I didn’t like it that much, either.

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This is also what Warcraft tried (and failed) to be. This has the weird green-magic thing as well, just not so much. As another movie made via significant Chinese interest (and starring the excellent Daniel Wu in an ultimately useless role), Warcraft should learn lessons from The Great Wall. Warcraft (which Ramin Djawadi also worked on) was one of my least-liked movies from last year – to the point where I binned my roast of the movie – and this was going the same way until it redeemed itself.

On the subject of Djawadi: his score for this movie is quite nice. Scores are usually an aspect of the movie I don’t bring up all the often (although I count myself a fan of them). This one is pretty good. Just wanted to point that out.

And one more thing: I bawl at movies like a little baby pretty much all the time. While this is more down to the screenwriters than the director, a common thread in Zhang Yimou movies is how effortlessly he manages to telegraph emotion. This movie is an excellent example of how he manages (with his team) to wring out even the slightest of moments. That fact is truly a thing of wonder.


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CLOSING THOUGHTS

Now, while I say that all these glowing things about the movie, I didn’t like it that much.

Yes: it’s a great fairytale. Yes: it’s a decent action movie. Yes: it’s a great movie from a children’s perspective. But no: I didn’t like it all that much.

Now, I have a reputation for being a bit of a harsh critic, but I am willing to give this movie a generous rating for the things it has achieved. I do not agree with the censorship of the movie’s criticism in China. Let people say what they say, I recommend. I might be a critic, but to be honest, my job is to tell you what I thought of a movie. Unless it’s a humongous piece of steaming crap, I would never not recommend a movie to you folks. But even then: if it picks at your interest, go and bloody well watch it. My primary goal is to tell you what movies are worth watching, above all. Critics, and our ilk, should never be censored for going against the grain (like when you’re slicing a lovely flank steak or some-such).

Now, that said…

The Great Wall has some pretty massive flaws, but it also achieves what it attempts to. And it comes out on the right side of the rating. Is it highly recommended by me? Well: no. It’s a movie you can watch if you want to, but it’s not something I’d send you to. Yes: this wouldn’t be as great to watch on the small screen, but the smaller screen might cover up some of the creature effects’ gaffes.

All in all: it’s pretty okay.

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Side note: I just came across a trailer for A Cure for Wellness while watching UFC 208 tonight. Why in the heck is a bit from the Interstellar soundtrack in there?!

Alright: I’m back to the fights! Let me know what you thought about the movie in the comments!

Final rating: 5.5/10

 

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