The Great Wall (Cháng Chéng, 2016)

A gang of mercenaries, flotsam of medieval Europe’s interminably fractious wars, now banded together in hope of reaching China and finding black powder to sell back in the west. As they wind through the wilds, they are attacked and pursued by bandit tribes. Pausing to camp for the night and lick their wounds, the mercenaries become the prey of something far more terrifying, a monstrous creature that speeds through the dark and carries off several of the warriors. Soon, only two men are left: English bowman William (Matt Damon) and his Spaniard comrade Tovar (Pedro Pascal). William manages to hack a paw off the reptilian thing when it charges them, and the rest of the beast plunges into a ravine. Continuing their journey, William and Tovar find themselves caught between the bandits and the massive bulwark of the Chinese Great Wall, defended by an army of soldiers known as the Nameless Order, and the two men surrender to the larger force rather than be left as sport for the smaller.

The two interlopers find their report of a monster attack the subject of scepticism by the Order, not because they don’t believe in these terrors, but because never before has a warrior been able to kill one single-handed. The Order is captained by the stalwart General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and advised by the wily Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and sports a corps of daring female shock troops led by Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), who is at first the most ardently contemptuous voice against the foreigners’ story. Wang and Lin both speak English thanks to another captive, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who arrived a quarter-century earlier on the same mission as these new arrivals, and Ballard, whilst officially advising them of the impossibility of escape, has in fact been steadily amassing filched black powder supplies and needs help to get his trove away. But soon a colossal force of the monsters, known as the Tao Tei to the Order, swarms on the Wall, and William and Tovar are quickly forced to prove their fighting gumption for the sake of saving their own lives when some of the Tao Tei make it onto the ramparts and rip through ranks of soldiers.

A test case for Hollywood-Chinese co-productions that makes its cooperative, market-annexing agenda its own, amusing subtext, The Great Wall sees Zhang Yimou bringing the gaudy eye for colour and swooning design he turned on his great duo of wu xia films from the early new millennium, Hero (2002) and The House of Flying Daggers (2004), as well as the 2008 Olympics, to an even more ambitious project, albeit one that gives him less space to compose pure raptures of design and motion. The Great Wall is comparatively businesslike in trying to forge a new template for cross-cultural blockbusters, but it’s still a riotous conjuration of saturated colour schemes and thrumming compositional élan. The Great Wall is a work of DeMille-esque ambition that blends the big filmmaking precepts still possible in the Chinese industry, evinced in its gigantic sets and armies of costumed extras, with modern Hollywood prowess with digital effects, and some pan-global star power. The connection with DeMille doesn't feel stretched either: a scene in which the Europeans impress their hosts with simple but superlative weapons echoes a similar moment in The Crusades (1935), and like that work this one pivots on the possibility of fellowship in spite of great difference, dreaming up a purely symbolic enemy to make its point. Zhang’s long road from his early, impressionistic, deeply artful works to his later career as a total showman has been surprising on some levels, but also seemingly inevitable on others, as his fascination with raw visual textures has simply found another outlet. Witness moments here like a colossal overhead survey of the Tao Tei horde that surges and shimmers in semi-abstract shapes according to their functions in the host, or in the circle of red-feathered arrows that trap William and Tovar in front of the Great Wall, and the man-made Milky Way formed by a host of floating lanterns released to mourn the death of a leader.

As goes almost without saying, of course, not much of that energy and originality was expended on the script. An opening title informs us this is one of the legends associated with the Wall, but the legned methinks dates back to the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), transposed to China, with a few ideas borrowed from George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books for garnishing, with the Nameless Order subbing for the Night’s Watch. The explanation Wang gives for the appearance of the Tao Tei evokes the legend of the prodigiously greedy Jade Emperor, who brought down cosmic retribution in the form of this swarm that has come regularly every sixty years for two millennia, but with the appended suggestion that they might actually be an alien life form that hitched a ride to Earth on a meteorite – thus making The Great Wall a choice of genres as well as a fusion of filmmaking models. The basic plot is straightforward almost to a fault and sports hackneyed motifs, presenting William as a battle-damaged cynic stirred to new, noble efforts by the example of the Order and Lin’s hard yet fascinated gaze, with the question as to whether he’ll rise to the challenge and aid the Order in their desperate quest to outwit an increasingly canny and savage enemy, or whether he’ll join Tovar and Ballard as they seek to abscond with black powder under the cover of a Tao Tei attack. William’s deeper streak, his curiosity and hope to master something like science by fashioning a compass from a magnetic rock he’s found, proves the secret behind his seeming luck in taking out a Tao Tei, and also gifts Wang a precious moment of inspiration, as he consults records of earlier attacks to guide him, and concludes that magnets disturb the monsters’ minds and impede the control of their queen. This discovery brings hope of defeating the horde, even as the Tao Tei reveal a new gift for tactical guile that might just presage the apocalypse.

The Great Wall’s motif of a medieval soldier straying across Eurasia’s great expanses to find himself in the midst of a war, presaging the pivots of epoch, is strongly reminiscent of Henry Hathaway’s wayward but genuinely intriguing The Black Rose (1951). Zhang’s film doesn't do as much as it might have with the notion, mostly because the blockbuster creed, whilst it can be smart, has no time for intellectual curiosity. Greed is the moral enemy here, as the Tao Tei are identified as a cyclical punishment for humankind’s naked lust for material wealth. Their desire to fall upon the Middle Kingdom’s capital and feast on the populace there, a meal that would expand their numbers to world-consuming strength, provides both the ultimate plot stake and also, perhaps, a metaphor for the Global Financial Crisis that did so much to realign the relations of the US and China. William and Tovar are quickly lauded by the Nameless Order for their raw fighting intuition, but held in rightful suspicion for their selfish motives and mercenary outlook, as opposed to the great mass enterprise and implicit mutual trust the Order expects of its members, an ideal which William finds inviting but Tovar and Ballard reject, to their own ultimate misfortune. Which is easily read as a schism between Western individualism and Chinese communal values, qualities which, of course, must work in tandem when the moment comes to save the world. The scabrous cynicism over the history of oppressive power evinced in Zhang’s nihilist spectacle The Curse of the Golden Flower (2005) is absent, mostly hewing closer to the gorgeous patriotic guff of Hero, except that the moment envoys of the imperial power turn up a note of sarcasm enters the fray, with the Emperor (Junkai Wang) a callow twit whose indulged curiosity almost ends the world, and finishes up with him hiding behind his own throne. Contrasting the Emperor’s lack of pith is Peng Yong (Lu Han), a shaky young soldier who keeps getting into trouble for his uncertainty in high-pressure situations, who finds his fate wound in with William’s and eventually proves his courage and fidelity in suitably explosive style.

Damon gets by with adopting a faint midlands whistle, whilst not really changing his regular persona at all. As ridiculous as his inclusion here is, I enjoyed his presence nonetheless, with his peculiar ability to play characters at once highly talented but still functioning as an everyman avatar. There’s also a pleasant sense of historical connection to earlier generations of Hollywood stars sent far out of their usual spheres on epic adventures, like Tyrone Power and Gary Cooper. Lau is always a welcome face, and although he doesn’t really get much to do, his gaunt and cagey intelligence fills out the landscape more effectively than the giant sets and CGI. But it’s Jing who walks off with the film with her glamorous ass-kicker, introduced in a wonderful swooping camera movement that locates her razor-cut asymmetrical locks and high-calibre eyebrows, instantly knitting herself into Zhang’s career-long gift for elevating his leading ladies, letting her slowly melt before Damon's gaze without stealing any of her martial ferocity and can-do spirit. As any grand old Hollywood director knew, even the most cornball script can be redeemed simply by taking it seriously and shooting it dynamically, and that’s exactly what Zhang manages here. The moment of truth when William must choose his allegiance and destiny is the kind of moment that illustrates this, as Zhang follows him into a nook where he bows his head and weighs his heart whilst all about him chaos explodes, and then marches back out to get on with his appointed task, a quiet moment amidst thunderous bombast that registers with simple, direct power.

Generally, Zhang is too busy staging magnificent madness to let hoary story aspects slow him, as he goes for steampunk-tinged thrills, from Lin’s corps of blue-clad amazons rappelling down the wall to lance the lethal beasts (so employed because they’re lighter and quicker), their dizzying plunges filmed in swooping body-cam shots, to a climax involving primitive hot air balloons giving chase to the horde, a moment that refers back to the earlier vision of lanterns, but now breaching a new concept of space and motion. Zhang’s talent at quickly establishing and deploying emotional effect through his visuals makes up for the occasionally choppy scene flow by sparing us belabouring dialogue, as in a vignette where William notices a mounting pile of rappelling rings, bringing home the cost to Lin’s female corps of their spectacular assaults and stirring his confused admiration for such selfless commitment. One fight scene finds William and Tovar trying to capture one of the monsters in a smoky mist, able to track the Tao Tei’s movements in the murk thanks to one of the clever ideas of the Order, launching arrows into the beasts fixed with pipe whistles. There’s even a moment spared in the breathless climactic battle to register the surreal beauty of a pavilion lined with stained glass, the interior a zone of kaleidoscopic colour, like some eerie proof of human genius in the midst of total chaos. Such moments, which retain a faith in the notion cinematic beauty and action can coexist without being reduced to a shell of haute couture posturing, completely defeated my objections to The Great Wall. Only the coda really disappoints, stumbling to a limp bromance-over-romance concluding note that smacks of indecision based in what the various audiences might or might not like. I’d certainly agree The Great Wall doesn’t really do justice to the grand possibilities presented by such an ambitious project, but as a night at the movies, especially considering how lacklustre much of Hollywood’s recent superhero-heavy output has been lately, I found it a blissful good time. 

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