How Bad Is…The Great Wall (2016)?
Zhang Yimou’s fantasy epic failed to impress US audiences, but how bad was it really?
Recently the blockbuster trade has all been in one direction. US filmmakers have been making their films friendlier to Chinese audiences in order to reap big profits from a market that is growing in leaps in bounds. I don’t know how long the trend of sending empty visual spectacles like Transformers or The Mummy can last, but right now it’s big money. Unlike past decades, we see very little traffic in the other direction.
Box Office History: Hong Kong Films.
In 1996, Jackie Chan finally landed a hit film in the United States with Rumble in the Bronx. What followed was a decade that saw many Hong Kong action films and action stars break into the dominant US market. Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, Chou Yun Fat, and Jackie Chan became household names and even starred in Hollywood films. The boom peaked with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 and tailed off with one final epic: Hero in 2004, directed by Zhang Yimou.
While a few other later films made a splash, they never achieved the box office success that earlier films did. Yimou released another epic, The House of Flying Daggers, with Zhang Ziyi from Crouching Tiger in the lead, but the film failed to make much money in America. Even Jet Li and Jackie Chan had trouble making waves with imported films. The rush to import Kung Fu and Hong Kong crime dramas dried up. That has pretty much been the situation leading up to Yimou’s latest attempt to interest US audiences in sweeping Chinese epics: 2016’s The Great Wall.
The Great Wall (2016)
A band of European mercenaries led by William (Matt Damon) are in China hoping to discover black powder and bring it back to the West. Chased by bandits and harried by creatures in the night, only William and Tovar survive to reach The Great Wall. There, they are taken prisoner and regarded with suspicion for their story: the creature that attacked them was a scout of a marauding beast army that attacks China every 60 years. The wall was created to defend the land from these monsters. Unfortunately, they’ve come early this cycle and learned how to bypass the wall. The commander of the wall frees the Europeans and together they try to find a way to stop the beasts before they can sack the capital.
What Went Wrong.
- The CG Can Get Kinda Crappy.
While it’s not universally bad, the overuse of CG is both apparent and desensitizing. The very start of the film has a CG dolly shot where a virtual camera flies over the computer generated Great Wall. It looks terrible, especially compared to the practical effects used to construct the sets where 75% of the action takes place.
We get a nice vertical pan through the interior of the wall, going from barracks to weapon smithy to armory and all the way up to the catapults atop the wall which is all practical and effective, but even then Zimou inserts several needless CG doodads that grab your attention in a negative way.
Finally, the alien space dragon bugs (for real) have a tendency to pull a World War Z and pile up in CG clusterfucks, making the battles laughable in places.
- The Sound Quality Varies All Over the Place!
This film likes LOUD NOISES! Unfortunately, it also likes quiet conversations and whispered intrigue. Watching this at home, I had to have my speaker volume control in my hand at all times. I’d crank it to hear whatever Willem Dafoe was conspiring about and then hurriedly turn it way down for the inevitable scream or explosion that happened in the very next second. God help those people who saw this in theaters and couldn’t control when they were going to get their eardrums blown out.
Dirty White (Savior) Boys.
Everyone attached to this movie has argued vociferously that this is not another “white savior” movie where the Caucasians save the day. They point to the strong cast of Chinese characters. They point to the backwards and ragged appearance of the white dudes. They point out that two of the European characters are actually kinda assholes. I just don’t buy it.
Every time something goes right for the good guys, it is either because Matt Damon’s character is actively involved, or it is because Matt Damon came up with the idea. The Chinese have been fighting these alien dragon bugs (…seriously…) for thousands of years, but only a white guy with no experience can suggest capturing one of them for study or that killing the queen is a great idea. He’s so awesome, I think he has a higher bug kill-count than the Chinese army combined. The big twist is that the bugs are disrupted by magnets, and guess who happens to have a magnet on him for no reason…the white guy. Sheesh.
What Went Right.
- The Big Battle Sequences.
Despite the often glaring CGI issues, the battle sequences are usually pretty awesome. Zimou has a solid handle on blending wire-fu and computer editing to create scenes that flow. The battles have a constant and logical escalation. Each of the army brigades, helpfully color coded, has a range and a role, and we get to see them deploy like the various sections of an orchestra. By the end of the fight everyone is firing and fighting and you see the whole interlocking set of cogs turning into a finely honed machine of action.
- Chinese Characters.
One of the reasons that the white savior plot rankles so much is because the Chinese cast is pretty amazing on their own. The main focus is Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), who heads up the all-female lancer brigade. She has an interesting back story about being abandoned as a child and taken in by the General of the Wall (Zhang Hanyu). They have a strong soldier/commander, daughter/father relationship, and they are both well acted. When Lin Mae is forced to take over the whole army, its a great story arc that could/should have been the focus of the whole story.
The supporting cast is likewise notable. Andy Lau and Lu Han both have story arcs where they befriend the Europeans for different reasons, and both end up making big sacrifices for their comrades. There’s enough with these characters that you just don’t need Matt Damon.
- Bold, Colorful and Beautiful.
Director Zhang Yimou is well known for his colorful images. In Hero, each scene’s color palette is selected to set it apart, highlight character traits, and create a tableau this is like a moving painting. In The Great Wall, the color coding is a little more prosaic, where each regiment in the army is brightly colored to show their role. While it may seem like a silly point, in action it is amazing. You get these bigger than big sweeping action scenes where the choice to use such garish colors suddenly make sense.
How Bad Is It?
The Great Wall isn’t a bad film. Of the films of Yimou’s that have made it across the ocean, it’s really solid. Hero will probably wind up being remembered as Zhang Yimou’s magnum opus, but The Great Wall is a far sight better than the sluggish House of Flying Daggers.
The CG in this film can be tacky, but its nowhere near as silly as Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. The action is competent, and quite lovely in places. As much as I dislike Matt Damon stealing the plot from the Chinese cast, everyone gives a game performance. There’s nothing inherently unwatchable in this movie, as long as you get over the whole “we built this wall to stop alien bug space dragons!”
The problem is that Yimou is selling a movie that US audiences are just not buying any more. Just like Biblical epics and King Arthur movies, audiences have been rejecting these films for nearly a decade. Yimou’s talent as a director has not changed, but the tastes of his desired audience definitely have.