J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Great Wall: A Monster Co-Production

They first crawled out of the earth centuries ago, yet somehow the swarms of Taotie lizard-beasts represent modern commercial values sweeping across China. Only collective action can stand against them—and perhaps a hotdogging Western adventurer. Or maybe they are just monsters who need killing. If you can work with it on that level, Zhang Yimou’s mega-budget co-production The Great Wall (trailer here) is rather enjoyable viewing when it opens today nationwide.

Evidently, the Taotie first spewed forth as punishment for a venal emperor’s greed. Every sixty years they return, strewing havoc in their wake. That is why subsequent emperors built that large wall thingy and it is probably why they also invented gunpowder before the West. They were highly motivated. A group of blundering Western mercenaries came to China hoping to acquire game-changing quantities of the “black powder,” but they have been much abused by the indigenous Khitan of the north. Yet, somehow the two survivors, Irishman William Garin and Spaniard Pero Tovar, manage to dispatch a Taotie scout.

In most respects, the Westerners’ timing is pretty terrible. They are about to be capture by the Nameless Order, the elite corps that stands guard on the Great Wall, just as the Taotie attack—six weeks early. Both will distinguish themselves during the initial battle, but Tovar is biding his time, hoping to score some black powder and make a break for it, whereas Garin’s long dormant idealism starts to stir, like a Medieval Rick Blaine.

There is no getting around the film’s greatest weakness. That is obviously Matt O’Damon flailing around as Garin. The bad news is his Irish accent is what you might call mushy (seriously, isn’t he from Boston?). The good news is he only uses it about half the time. In contrast, Jing Tian once again proves she can be a flat-out fierce action star, despite her supermodel looks (for further proof checkout how she redeems the conspicuously flawed Special I.D. with her barn-burner fight scene facing off against Andy On). As Commander Lin Mae, she throws down with authority and generally anchors the film with her no-nonsense intensity.

Although movie stars do not get any bigger than Andy Lau, he takes a supporting role in Zhang’s 3D spectacle, but he rather seems to be enjoying the erudite sagaciousness of Strategist Wang, which rubs off on viewers. When the kaiju hordes (or whatever) rampage, you would definitely want his wise counsel. Teen heartthrob Lu Han also helps humanize the rumble as Peng Yong, the sensitive soldier. However, it is always rather confusing whenever Eddie Peng’s Commander Wu pops up. His role is not exactly clear, but he seems to be the Song Dynasty equivalent of a Communist political officer, given his arrogance and authority to insist on unsound military tactics.

Zhang brings quite a bit to the party himself with his visual flash and dazzle. The awesome vistas of the Wall and the teeming throngs of Taotie are perfect for his sensibilities. Plus, Commander Lin’s bungee-jumping shock troops are undeniably cool to behold. That is why the 3D is so frustrating: it definitely makes the film look artificially dark and murky.

So, apparently, the takeaways from Great Wall are walls and gunpowder are both darned useful when you are living in a dangerous world. The notion that Westerners are only out for themselves is not so subtly sewn into its fabric, but at least there is a meeting-of-the-minds between Lin and Garin—chastely so, thanks to Chinese censors. Regardless, it is always fun to watch Zhang, Jing, and Lau do their thing. Recommended for fans of big, noisy special effects movies and fans of the all-star cast, The Great Wall opens today (2/17) in theaters across the City, including the AMC Empire.

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