Universal Pictures 1 hour 43 minutes PG-13
No wonder THE GREAT WALL cost $150 million. It is the most expensive Chinese movie ever made and there’s a good reason why. This film is so heavy on special effects, stunts, fire and explosions, plus, thousands upon thousands of computer generated green beasts with sharp teeth storming the wall. Sections of the 5500 miles wall were built by different rulers in 10 to 20 year increments over a period of 1700 years. The Great Wall is massive and so is everything, but the actors. They are normal size in this film.
Director You Zhang knows how to handle a huge cast. He’s not only known for Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, but was responsible for the enormous and disciplined display of choreography by rows and rows of adults and children you saw at the 2008 Opening and Closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games.
There isn’t much of a plot here. Matt Damon as William and his side kick Pedro Pascall as Tovar are taken prisoner and have to prove they are worthy warriors. They both look like scraggly, overgrown Mountain Men but clean up nicely for their captors. William’s fighting skills are their ticket to survival and, secretly, to get their hands on some of that magical black gun-powder to take home.
The Ring Leader and interpreter, who speaks great English, is Tian Jing as Commander Lin Mae. She is beautiful, strong and a real risk-taker. She and other women in her command literally dive off high platforms with spears to kill the beasts and get reeled back in. It’s Cirque du Soleil type high-wire antics as these very sophisticated soldiers, men and women, catapult canon balls covered in that black powder and set on fire to protect the wall and the people in it. There are many casualties, but it’s not all that bloody. This is somewhat cartoonish, except there’s a lot of action and way too many warriors and beasts. It’s excessive.
As our heroes, William and Tovar see what’s going on, they become embroiled in helping to protect that Great Wall from those incredibly ugly green beasts that actually have a queen. She is the one they need to kill to stave off the attacks. One of the sillier elements of the story is the rock that William had with him. We come to find out that it acts as a sort of Kryptonite to pacify the beasts.
The landscapes and the sets are huge and the panoramas are beautifully shot by Stuart Dryburgh and Xiaoding Zhao. They had plenty to work with shooting in China as well as in New Zealand. They used unusual camera pans up and down that give you a sense of how high that wall is and how far it is down. There is plenty to see in this film but there were a couple of long shots of the top of the Wall with soldiers marching that reminded us a little of that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her friends were trying to sneak into the Emerald City as the soldiers chanted. But this Wall is just so over the top.
Willem Dafoe plays Ballard, an Englishman who has lived with this Chinese enclave and shows William and Tovar the ropes. He gets lost in the fray and is eventually sacrificed.
Interesting that Tian Jing is a strong female lead in the story and that women have as much opportunity to fight and get killed as men. The relationship between Damon with Pedro Pascal as buddies had flashes of humor but not enough. But there is lots of action, eye candy and gasp-worthy stunts to make this film look more like an elaborate video game. Between box office in the US and China, it will probably more than break even. The kids will probably like it best. It’s a tall wall but this film doesn’t soar to great heights.