“The Great Wall” is set in an unspecific ancient past of Chinese history but, in reality, the movie takes place in cinema’s future. Like it or not, this is the shape of things to come in multiplexes worldwide as Chinese media companies snap up American production entities and international producers scheme to design blockbusters to play to broad audiences in China, North America and all over the world.
So the movie comes with an American superstar and a top Chinese director, populated with a former Korean pop idol along with a TV actor, Chinese and Hong Kong film stars and money thrown at the CGI visual effects so that everyone will make millions. Won’t they?
Well, for those behind this historic Chinese/U.S. co-production maybe no or not what they initially hoped. But that’s not going to discourage others from trying the exact same thing.
For years now, American tentpole pictures have been geared more for international markets than the domestic one as characters, dialogue, action and casting are driven by the need to reach a wide audience that demands action over subtlety and fantasy over reality. Increasingly, these American studio films are American in name only.
Now that the Chinese are reversing the equation —making “Chinese” films to satisfy Western tastes — we’re staring at a dumb-downed international cinema devoid of national characteristics as the intent is “universal” appeal. The thing is, though, in the case of “The Great Wall” at least that vast intentional audience isn’t biting.
The film, costing a reported $150 million, opened in China in December where its gross of $171 million was considered disappointing. Certainly, the North American box-office take of $18.4 million over this last weekend when released by Universal (which fronted 25% of the budget) is close to being a flop.
Which is surprising given the film’s pedigree. Matt Damon, no less, is the star and Zhang Yimou, China’s best known director and, arguably, its finest over the past three decades, is behind the camera. Top Chinese actors fill out the major roles and Industrial Light & Magic provides the state-of-the-art digital pyrotechnics.
Yet the result feels like Marvel Comics meets Lord of the Rings meets a conventional monster movie. The monsters are dull, the acting often wooden, dialogue functional at best but, yes, the spectacle — the swooping cameras, amazing stunts, lustrous lighting and spectacular sets — are eye-poppers.
Zhang pulls off the epic-scaled production with plenty of style but can’t find any philosophical, cultural or moral dimensions to the period tale. It’s hard to know what happened on the set but with a swarm of American producers and a mostly English-language screenplay by a tag-team of American writers he may not have been able to navigate the “westernness” of the property itself.
Damon plays a mercenary soldier, William Garin, who has led a rapidly dwindling band of fortune-seekers into the Gobi Desert seeking Chinese gun powder that will transform warfare in the West and make them all rich.
Only an attack by marauding bandits has reduced his force to four men. When they take refuge in a cave suddenly it’s further reduced to two. Some ravenous creature has attacked two of the men. Then William and Pero Tovar (Chilean-born Pedro Pascal from “Game of Thrones”) manage to chop off a claw (and presumably slay the beast) saving their lives.
What was that thing? they wonder.
The following day the bandits chase them to a fortress on one segment of the Great Wall, where they are captured — rescued is more like it — by the so-called “Nameless Order,” an elite army led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu). An assault by these beasts, which they call Taotie, is imminent so there is little time to interview or execute these two mercenaries.
The first assault is a spectacular affair with arrows, fireballs, cannons and all but the kitchen sink flung into the incoming hoards only these fail to stop the onslaught. Most intriguing of all the fighters are a group of female warriors dressed in blue who, as members of the Crane Corps, bungee jump off the Great Wall down toward the ground to lance the beasts, many not surviving the jump as creatures who escape the lances quickly devour the women.
Once William has proven his worth in battle, he is accepted into this Chinese Alamo as a fellow combatant, which gives him time to strike up a friendship of sorts with the commander of the Crane Corps, Lin Mae (Jing Tian of “Special ID”), who happens to speak flawless English.
Boy, those finishing schools in China were really something in those days! No, actually, the film does soon arrive at an explanation for her English proficiency when it introduces a gaunt Willem Dafoe as Ballard, a fellow seeker of gun powder who has been kept prisoner for some unexplained reason for 25 years. Having nothing better to do he taught Lin Mae English although why she’d want to learn a language no one speaks in her neighborhood is unclear.
(Even more unclear is how Strategist Lang, played by Hong Kong star Andy Lau, also knows perfect English. Perhaps he went to school with Lin.)
No time to think about much of this, however, as the attacks keep coming from the Taotie, a lizard-like mystical beast that lays siege to the Great Wall every 60 years. What they do between wars is anybody’s guess.
These otherworldly creatures, more like rejects from “Jurassic Park,” are extremely uninteresting as movie monsters go but apparently they do learn from their mistakes from 60 years prior: The attacks prove to be a distraction for the humans as the Taotie use their intelligence to find another way into the Imperial City.
There is a rote subplot about Ballard and Tovar scheming to steal the gun powder and escape during a siege but like all the human interaction in this film everything lacks back story, motivation and dimension. Lin does lecture William about the importance of teamwork and trust — as a mercenary he trusts no one, of course — but that’s as far as the movie ever ventures into a moral point.
In “Hero,” Zhang exhibited a surprising affinity for martial-arts action but here the fighting belongs more to the Marvel Comics universe. The battle scenes are captured well for all the formats this movie comes in — 2D, 3D and Imax — with occasional slo-mo shots of arrows or lances heading for the ferocious prey. Cinematographer Stuart Drysburgh (“Alice Through the Looking Glass”) works with Zhang regular Zhao Xiaoding to create the sharp imagery.
The editing by Mary Jo Markey (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and Craig Wood (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise) is lickety-split, certainly making the movie move like a bullet. At 103 minutes it’s just about right for a monster movie. Only you keep thinking: shouldn’t this historic co-production be more than a routine monster movie?
The movie was first announced in 2011 as an English tentpole project to launch Legendary East, the new Chinese arm of Legendary Pictures (since acquired by China’s Wanda Media). The project was to be directed by “The Last Samurai” director Edward Zwick, who co-wrote the original screenplay with his partner Marshall Herskovitz, working from a concept from Legendary CEO Thomas Tull and “World War Z” author Max Brooks.
But things went south — or maybe I should say east — as Zhang came aboard and the script was reworked (one imagines hugely to get that “universal” appeal I mentioned earlier) by Carlo Bernard, Doug Milo and even Tony Gilroy coming in to lend a hand.
The project now features more Mandarin dialogue and a bigger Chinese cast than was originally planned, but it also turns into a monster movie instead of a cross-cultural east-meets-west story that might have given more dimension and greater vision to the action flick.
Yet this is the future of international movies such as this. Even with top stars and a fine director, the vision is that of producers with eyes on the box office and little concern for creativity.
Opens: February 17, 2017 (Universal Pictures) Production companies: Legendary Pictures, Atlas Entertainment, Le Vision Pictures, China Film Group
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Zhang Hanya, Eddie Peng, Lu Han, Andy Lau, Lin Gengxin
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriters: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro,Tony Gilroy
Story by: Max Brooks, Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskowitz
Producers: Thomas Tull, Charles Roven, Jon Jashni, Peter Loehr
Executive producers: Jillian Share, Alex Gartner, La Peikang, Zhang Zhao, E. Bennett Walsh
Directors of photography: Stuart Dryburgh, Zhao Xiaoding
Production designer: John Myrhe
Music: Ramin Djawadi
Costume designer: Mayes C. Rubeo
Editors: Mary Jo Markey, Craig Wood
PG-13 rating, 103 minutes