There’s something to be said for effort. It’s usually an attribute for which one gives a semi-sarcastic “A”, meaning that they liked the subject’s work ethic or moxie despite whatever objectively crappy result they managed to churn out. That’s not what I mean here. But when I hear that Zhang Yimou, the director of Hero, is about to make an American-Chinese co-production in which Matt Damon fights monsters on top of the Great Wall of China (from a concept by the writer of World War Z and the head of Legendary Pictures), my expectations plummet to roughly Dracula Untold levels. I expected a perfunctory genre exercise in which a bankable action star was handed a simplistic studio premise that appeals to both East and West in an effort to return a strong box office both globally and in a burgeoning marketplace. What I was not expecting was to be wearing a big, stupid grin for quite so much of it, and to experience a persistent sense that everyone in the film was really trying their darnedest to create something worth watching. I don’t exaggerate when I say that this film delivers a battle sequence in the first twenty minutes that is easily as well-made as the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers‘ Battle of Helm’s Deep, and after watching a trio of sub-par Hobbit films, I’m comfortable saying that that doesn’t occur by accident.
The film starts its focus on William (Damon) and his mercenary buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal), on the run from some bandits in Mongolia, on a mercenary Marco Polo effort to reach China and steal some black powder. They’re in rags, have long scraggly beards, and are immediately baffled when their chase leads them to the base of an architectural marvel staffed by a professional army in incredibly elaborate costume armor and castes. There is infantry, with armor styled like black bears, archers, like red birds, and “Crane Corps”, an blue-uniformed, all-female, close-quarter combat troop that is even cooler than it sounds (pikemen on pulleys!). This is the Nameless Order, under the leadership of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), and strategist Wang (Andy Lau), sworn to defend China from the hell-mouth just north of the Wall, which spews forth monstrous creatures every 60 years to attack the wall and devour the north of China.
“Have you ever seen an army like this?” William sycophantically remarks to Tovar as they sit with their hands tied while the Chinese deftly fend off the several thousand monstrous creatures that choose that exact moment to attack. This critic’s answer is…not since Lord of the Rings, and it wasn’t nearly this colorful.
The inclusion of Andy Lau brought another film comes to mind as I was evaluating this setup: Iron Man 3. Lau – a major Hong Kong action star with a career spanning decades – was originally offered the part of a heart surgeon (eventually played by veteran Chinese actor Wang Xueqi) who has a minuscule bit part that solves a huge problem for the title superhero. That subplot was some trite nonsense, and essentially contributed nothing except for a brief Mary Sue persona whose sole purpose is to provide a sounding board for the American actors to talk about how cool China is for a couple of minutes, in an effort to bypass China’s foreign film importation restrictions through sheer toadying. This is a phenomenon I’ve remarked upon before – and while I’m not concerned in the least by China’s rise as a film market (the more the merrier), I’ve almost invariably found these “China cameos” to be a bit superfluous and condescending – and by some reports, critics in China felt the same way. Damon’s inclusion in this film almost feels like an inverse of Iron Man 3‘s debacle – the inclusion of a popular American actor playing a skilled mercenary who is present throughout the film, but largely along for the ride as the Chinese characters (and organization, and technology) actually drive the plot. But overall, the balance feels much cleaner here. Yes, having a European trader randomly show up on the occasion of China’s once-every-sixty-years monster invasion is a bit convenient, and his motivation for being there is quite flattering to China itself. But it helps that both Damon and Jing’s characters (who essentially become the co-leads of the film) are every bit a combat and charisma match for each other, even if their accents are both a bit odd and inconsistent. The end-result feels like a true international film – a bit like Pacific Rim, with the slight improvement of having the confidence to showcase its CGI monstrosities during daylight hours.
The plotline of this film, even for its simplicity, doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the film does make some visual and practical effort to suggest that the monsters are evolving greater intelligence, with the army and monsters alike forced to adjust their tactics as the film goes on. It’s a great deal of fun to watch, although why all of this escalation would occur along the most fortified and well-manned hundred-yard section of the 5,500-mile Wall is a mystery best left unpondered, as there’s no good answer for it, and it didn’t particularly bother me during the film. What did bug me were the film’s tepid ambitions beyond the Wall. The stakes of the film are world-ending – if the monsters are allowed to reach the Chinese capital (which has a population of two million, but looked virtually empty whenever we saw it), they will consume the entire population and reproduce in sufficient numbers to destroy the world. Did I buy these stakes? Largely yes, even if the final battle relies on the same “Take out the [central thing] and you’ll vanquish the entire army” nonsense as every sci-fi exhibition film from to Star Trek Beyond to The Avengers. At a certain point, I’ll probably have to stop regarding swarms of CGI whatevers as a credible threat if they’re as easy to destroy en masse as the Death Star, but it appears that I haven’t reached that point yet. The final action setpiece is outstanding, featuring Jing and Damon performing exhilarating fantasy acrobatics worthy of Cruise and Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, always feeling like they’re mere seconds from being devoured alive. Ramin Djawadi‘s score (which includes diegetic taiko drums used to direct the army’s tactics) is marvelous – and as a point of comparison, I say that having just watched a Marvel Studios film yesterday, and being (once again) underwhelmed by its fade-into-the-background generic score. Marvel is good at many things, but scoring superhero antics with memorable themes is not one of them. Djawadi has done some truly breathtaking work on Game of Thrones and Westworld last year, and I’m quite pleased to see him pushing back against the tide of bland superhero music on the silver screen.
Astute readers may note that I haven’t remarked much on Matt Damon playing the white hero of a Chinese film from a standpoint of “whitewashing” or a lack of minority representation in film. That’s mainly because after seeing the film, I neither agree with that characterization, nor particularly have much to say on the subject. To me, The Great Wall only superficially resembles white savior films like The Last Samurai, and I honestly haven’t read many actual complaints on this subject outside of members of the American left who made up their minds about the film months before it came out. I don’t wish to be dismissive of an important and persistent issue, but politics is a target-rich environment at the moment, the US has just put a Captain Planet villain in charge of environmental protection, and for the moment, I’d rather focus my attention on issues where I can meaningfully contribute to the discourse. Including, for instance, goofy monster battles.
FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10