Movie Review - The Great Wall
You know, I'm beginning to wonder if a lot of these so-called movie critics, both in print and on YouTube, shouldn't be sent back down into the minors to pay their dues.
I'll get to that more in a minute, but personally I cannot for the life of me see why The Great Wall is sitting at 35% on Rotten Tomatoes right now. Sure, the lure is that you have these lizard monsters trying to break through the Great Wall of China but at its core, the film is about redemption, about burying your past and starting over, reforging one's own identity and in that, while not as original as the lure, is probably the most effective aspect of the film.
Clearly these "critics" weren't paying attention to that.
No, in this day and age, the life and death of any film is how shiny and pretty it is. To that end, Yimou Zhang and his cinematographers Stuart Dryburgh and Xiaoding Zhao manage to capture some amazing images with some of the richest colors I've seen put to screen. But this movie will be judged by it's monsters, the Tao Tei...and yeah, they're easily identified as CG. No, they don't have the polish that most American or Hollywood productions have. But that's just it...this isn't SOLELY an American production, it's a co-production with the China Film Group and it's pretty obvious that the special effects likely fell on the Chinese side. If these idiot critics would stop to think about it, it'd be obvious. It's simple, you see all those soldiers on the Wall? THOSE ARE REAL PEOPLE, not CGI doubles. Real people that need to be costumed down to every detail...and I'd damn well bet every cent I've made on this website [Which would be all of zero...way to go there 'gambler'...Kenny Rogers would be proud. - Ed.] that a pretty sizeable chunk of that $150 million budget went to that. Well, that and some of the sets. Sure, there's CGI set extention, but the foreground sets all seem to adhere to the high standards that many Chinese A-level productions have. So sure, Hollywood special effects houses could've been brought in to give the Tao Tei a better spit-and-polish, but those don't come cheap. And, if one looks in on Asian cinema these days, yeah, their effects have improved quite a bit lately...but no, they're not at Hollywood levels...yet. And any critic that has spent their time in the minors, looking at B-movies and sci-fi films from other world markets would know that. That said, you don't go into a movie expecting it to meet you on your terms. It's cut and printed already, it's evolution is done...it CAN'T meet you on your terms. You, as an audience member, have to come to it and meet it on its terms. If you can't do that, you have no business judging films.
With that rant out of the way, let's talk about the acutal story. A group of mercenaries are heading to the East...looking for gun powder to bring back to the West. They've been chased and harassed by bandits to the point that there is only a few of them left...including William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal). Stopping to rest one night, the remaining members of the party (save for our two stars, of course) are picked off by a creature. The remaining two act quickly to sever a limb from the beast before pushing it off a cliff to its doom. William keeps the limb, hoping to find someone that can tell him just what the hell it is. This leads our boys to The Great Wall where they encounter the Nameless Order that stands watch on the wall for these creatures and have vast stores of gun powder.
Here's where our redemption story kicks in and it falls on the shoulders of two characters that our pair meet here, Willem Dafoe's Sir Ballard and Jing Tian's Commander Lin Mae. Now, I've heard a few reviews asking why Willem Dafoe's character was even there. Idiots. He serves two purposes. First, you need a reason for some in the Nameless Order's ranks to be able to speak English...otherwise, we get bogged down in the usual East-Meets-West stuff which will only serve to take away from the story types we already have in place. Second, he's the temptation of the old life, the serpent, the Lucifer. In this new world (or, at least new to William and Tovar) he is the man who did not change...and that is awoken by the appearance of William and Tovar. He'd thought he'd be trapped there the rest of his life, so, while he harbored the resentment that would come naturally, he'd also become resigned to his fate. Once this new pair of Westerners appeared, he finally had his means to escape. On the other side of the equation, Commander Lin sees potential in William to grow beyond his mercenary nature and become a true warrior in the tradition of this Nameless Order...and the honor that comes with it and thus, the path to redemption. Truth be told, it's the Han Solo character arc...but without the romance. It can certainly be argued whether or not there was any romantic tension between the two characters, but I praise the film for not belittling Commander Lin like that, instead allowing her to stand on her own as a character and as a leader and not minimizing her to the standardized Hollywood role of 'love interest'. It's these opposing forces that pull Tovar and William apart...one wanting to return to the old ways the other wanting to grow into something new.
But hey, how 'bout them lizards? As one would expect, we get the standard three set pieces: one establishing the threat and, yeah, it's probably the most impressive set piece of the film, one where our heroes look to find a solution to the invading hordes and the last where the stakes are raised and everything is in the balance. Each set piece also serves up a different cinematic experience: the first is pure action, the second is tense suspense as the Tao Tei attack in fog and the third is pure spectacle as it is the capital of the Empire that is under attack. And...my god...that stained glass tower is quite possibly one of the most beautiful things I've seen put to camera. The design of the Tao Tei are quite a mix of the new and the familiar. There's no mistaking them for anything but very large lizards (I hesitate to use the adjective 'giant' for fear of bringing up images of Godzilla and the like...and the Tao Tei are not THAT big), but the unique placement of the eyes and how they communicate adds a little something fresh to our creature library.
And that's just it. More 'sophisticated' critics are of the mind to write this film off as a 'creature feature'. You're goddamn right it's a creature feature. But like any good or classic creature feature, there's more to the film than that...the creature is just the lure. Behind it is a story of redemption that certainly isn't anything new, but when it's married to this fairly original concept and shot in the trappings of Asian historical cinema at it's best...that's where this unique jewel of a film shines so brightly...and where so many of the usual critics completely miss the point. Sure, there are flaws to this jewel as it WOULD have been nice if the Tao Tei were rendered better, but if that's what ends up being the deal breaker for you, then you've lost the whole concept behind cinema to begin with: the celebration of the imagination.
So critics be damned. If the premise of viscous lizards attack the Great Wall of China sounds awesome to you, go see it, invest in it and meet the movie on its terms. I did...and I was very glad for it.