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The Great Wall

Hello MoFo’s! And welcome to another edition of At the Theater with The Gunslinger45. Well it February of 2017 and that means two things. A fresh start to a new year and it is the dumping season for movies studios. That special time of year in January and February where the powers that be decide to stick the films they think won’t do well in any other release date. For whatever reason they either think they will fail in the summer blockbuster season, won’t cut it during Christmas, are trying to squeeze into Oscar season, or are just plain crap. Now we do get some badass flicks every now and again during this time. We had Deadpool last year and that was very good and very financially successful. The John Wick movies were both released in this time period and they were great. And Peter Berg and Mark Walberg seem to do pretty damn well in January. But we also get a lot of crap like the Fifty Shades movies to a cartoon movie featuring Rob Schnieder as a polar bear. And it seems Universal has opted to release this movie now to deal with what is generally weaker competition. Now I first heard about this movie when I saw the trailer for the flick last year. I saw the epic scenery, the massive set pieces and I saw Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal. To which I asked “Why the hell is Matt Damon and Oberyn Martell in a movie about the Great Wall of China?” It looked pretty epic looking, but in all honesty I was not exactly pumped to see the movie. I knew it was being made by Zhang Yimou (the director for Hero) but still I was not moved to see it. But then the internet and social media just had to have their opinion on the trailer. People took to Twitter and Facebook screaming whitewashing! People cried to the heavens accusations that Matt Damon was playing a role intended for a Chinese actor. And a prominent Asian actress claims he was playing a “white savior” to protect Asian people. And because current events; a bunch of people made jokes about how the movie was about then presidential candidate Donald Trump. Naturally I was confused by the response. Now sure the movie did not look that interesting, but I was taken a back on how pissed off some people were at Matt Damon being in the flick. Not quite Affleck as Batman pissed, but still it was kind of intense for a little bit. The controversy died down but my interest remained peaked. I needed to know if this movie was worth the internet anger. So was this movie worth the hate? Well the short answer is no. In fact I thought the movie was pretty good. If you want the long answer then let’s go and make China great again with The Great Wall.

We start the flick off with lots of wide shots on 5 foreign riders running from pursuers on horseback. We come to find out the 5 used to be 20, but have lost many numbers to the dangers on their journey. These men are mercenaries who came to China to trade for black powder. The plan was to get the powder, bring it back to Europe, and retire wealthy men. This band of mercs includes Matt Damon as William and Pablo Pescal as Tovar. William and Tovar encounter a strange beast that kills the remaining 3 members of their group. Naturally they are freaked out by a strange creature (known as a Tao Tei). They manage to kill it and ride like hell to try and reach safety. They make their way to the Great Wall, which they find is occupied by soldiers and is friggin YUGE! Williams and Tovar are taken captive by the members of the Nameless Order lead by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wu (Andy Lau), and his commanders. Their captivity however is short lived. While the two are captive, the Tao Tei begin an attack on the wall. They want over the wall, and if they succeed they will eventually overrun the world and mankind will become extinct. William and Tovar manage to free themselves of their bonds and proceed to kick ass and chew bubble gum, despite bubble gum being a few centuries away from being invented. In addition to displaying their prowess in combat, the proof that they killed a Tao Tei scout in close quarters combat displays they might be able to aid the Nameless Order in their upcoming siege. As such, William and Tovar are given quarters in the barracks. While William and Tovar are at the wall they encounter another foreigner named Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe). Turns out Ballard came to the Wall 25 years ago on the same mission as them. But he was forbidden to leave the wall since the Nameless Order can’t let the secret of the Wall and their mission be known. Ballard and Tovar plan to try and sneak out of the Wall with black powder, but William is getting other ideas about staying and fighting after he forms a bond with Commander Lin (Jing Tian) of the Crane Troop. The flick details the ultimate decision William makes and the fight between man and the monstrous Tao Tei.

Now over all I liked the movie. But the flick was by no means perfect. The main plot of the movie is perfectly fine. The Tao Tei are monsters believed to be sent by the gods and punish man for the greed displayed by its Emperor. So every 60 years the Tao Tei attack China to feed its Queen so she can multiply and make more creatures. Sounds like a great plot, except the movie kinda shoots itself I the foot during the opening. During the opening credits, the flick leads with the true fact that the wall took over a millennia to build. If it took so long to build it, how the hell did the Chinese last so long before the wall was built? I mean even with 60 years between each attack how did they not get over run the first time out? How were they keeping the Tao Tei out? I don’t think the Tao Tei will submit to deportation. Not to mention the Nameless Order has a hell of a time fighting the Tao Tei with the Great Wall. How did they manage this without the wall even completed? Now the movie does detail that the Tao Tei are gradually getting smarter and that is making them more difficult opponents, but even as mindless beasts they should have been able to overrun the Earth already. I kind of think this might be me nitpicking, but I wanted additional information about the history behind the Tao Tei invasion. The film does give us back story but I wanted more of it. I mean the movie is maybe an hour and 40 minutes long, I think we can have Strategist Wu give us 5 minutes to give a bit more back story or have a flashback.

Which leads me into another big issue with the film; certain plot points and character developments feel rushed and underdeveloped. The biggest of which was William’s character arc. Now the setup is good. William is a mercenary as opposed to Commander Lin. Despite both being taken into service to military companies at very early ages both are very different. Lin was given to the Nameless Order at an early age and charged with keeping China and the world itself safe from the Tao Tei. William on the other hand was pressed into combat for food. Fight and kill to survive long enough to eventually fight for gold. William fight’s for himself while Lin fights for others and they make excellent foils for each other. The arc is supposed to show William’s character grew from soldier of fortune to fighting for something he believes in. And this would be great except there is a lot of telling and not enough showing with regards to his character. We are told he is a liar and a thief, but we never see it. We are told he trusts no one, but we do not see it. It just felt like they could have expanded on this change more.

Then again the entire movies’ mythos could have been explored more. The film tries to set up the world of ancient China and the military order but I want to know more about its history. I wanted to know more about how the Tao Tei came to be and how they operate. For a movie that is trying to build up this huge epic story and world building they try and cram all of this in an under 2 hour movie. I think the flick could have been helped by an extra 30 minutes to really help flush out the story and world building a little bit. I mean they are not trying to set up Middle Earth here. And this is kind of nitpicking of the movie; but the whole “queen” of the evil monster race thing has been done. And to be fair, this movie was no Aliens.

In addition, I was distracted by Damon’s attempts at an accent. I don’t know if he was trying to do Irish, English or Welsh, but the accent was bad. I mean really bad. It was so bad I wanted Mark Walberg to show up with bags on his feet and murder that accent The Departed style! And stupid does not even begin to describe the ridiculous prattle by members of the Nameless Order about how black powder was such a horrible weapon. If by horrible they meant THEIR BEST AND MOST EFFECTIVE WEAPON AGAINST THE BLOODY TAO TEI! I mean hell I would have built my whole defense around black powder, but that is just me. Finally the film was pretty predictable with an almost by the numbers Hollywood story. Key word almost.

But despite the movie’s flaws, there were still plenty of positives. First off the movie was a hell of a lot of fun. This is a popcorn movie through and through. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. While I would have liked to have seen more than three different designs for the Tao Tei, the designs were pretty cool. And the costume design was fantastic! The armor for the Nameless Order were colorable and memorable, the designs were unique and in depth, and each was for a different company within the order with a different task. From the black armor of the melee Bear Company to the elegant and graceful blue armor of the all-female Crane Company. And when you have a few hundred extras on set in armor it really makes a colorful and memorable scene. They didn’t even have to do much. Even standing in massive formations in overhead shots was just as impressive as they were when they were in combat.

Much like Silence, we have a predominantly Asian cast with a few non-Asian actors led by an accomplished film director. The scenes with the Chinese cast were very well done and the ratio between the scenes being all in Chinese with subtitles or a mix of English and Chinese was about 50/50. The scenes with Matt and Pablo were good for the most part. The beginning scenes showed they had excellent chemistry and played very well of each other. In addition the chemistry between Matt and Jian was very good too. They were able show a genuine bond with hints of romance, but subtle enough to avoid it being a straight up romance subplot. And since the movie already had more than a few different subplots already, this was the right choice. Speaking of good choices, this film avoids the done to death “foreigner joins the natives” trope ala Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai. That is because he doesn’t have to. The story is a monster movie yes, but it is mixed in with a story of redemption for Matt’s character. Matt’s arc runs parallel to the idea of human greed embodied by Dafoe and Pascal, and how he is drawn to more noble endeavors by Commander Lin.

But hands down the best part of the movie were the visuals! The camera work was superb and brilliantly captured the epic settling of Northwest China and the grandeur of the Great Wall. There were plenty of far off wide shots and overheads to really capture how big the wall was, how big the Nameless Order was, or how many Tao Tei were attacking. The filmmakers really wanted to hammer in how big the movie was by showing as much of it as they could. The set design was also absolutely outstanding and enhanced the massive feel to film! And it felt like an actual set and not some George Lucas green screen wankery. Now there was plenty of CGI for the monster hordes and a few other scenes, but that was to be expected. All of these visual wonders were amplified by the fact that I went and saw this movie in IMAX 3D. I am a firm believer in seeing movies in the theater and I have preached on multiple occasions that many films are enhanced by seeing them on as big a screen as possible. And an epic style film demands to be seen in IMAX. The IMAX viewing just enhanced how big the wall was and the level of the fight scenes, and enhanced the fight choreography. The only thing I can take away from this movie’s fight scenes was that some of the fighting seemed a little too much like “The Watchers on the Wall” episode of Game of Thrones. From the blade wall defenses, the warriors attacking people while suspended from ropes on the wall, to a Game of Thrones cast member being put into the movie; it is clear they writers pulled a few note from HBO.

So now that we have established that I think this was a good movie. The movie was flawed, but it was still very entertaining. But what about the controversies I listed earlier in the review? I mean the controversy was the entire reason I saw this flick. Do those concerns hold any water? Well the “white savior” cries were BS. Yes Matt was a hero in the movie, but he was not the only one. Many of the Chinese cast had hero moments in the movie, especially Jian’s Commander Lin. So much so that

WARNING: "Major" spoilers below
Commander Lin gets promoted to General and deals the final death blow to the Tao Tei queen where Damon had failed.

And as I stated before, Matt’s character was not Chinese. His character was never supposed to be Chinese. There is no issue in that regard. Top it off the director Zhang Yimou wanted Matt to be in the damn movie. This is a Chinese and American collaboration for an epic blockbuster. Zhang Yimou wanted a big name actor for the film, and he opted for Jason Borne. So much for the cries of those aboard the U.S.S. SJW concerning this non-troversy.

In all honesty I liked the idea about an American and Chinese collaboration. One of the things that make film so special is that it has the ability to be a barrier destroying force. Film is able to unite other nations, races, cultures, and creeds through a common love of art. Films made by one culture influences another, that film is seen by another artist and that influences that group of people, who in then influence others, who then go on to influence another generation of filmmakers, and repeat the cycle. From the French Lumiere Brothers helping launch film with one of the first movie cameras, to DW Griffith and Eisenstein leading the way to the foundation of film grammar, to the rise of Golden Age Hollywood which gave us John Ford who influenced Kurosawa, to the French New Wave being influenced by Film Noir, both of whom then influenced New Hollywood among dozens of other film movements and scores of directors, who then went on to influence another new generation of filmmakers and so on and so on. Film exists in its own little world. A world told at 24 frames per second through a lens and capable of brining artists of the world together. So when two highly cinephilic cultures decide to come together to make a film, it is not only exciting, but something I want to support. Now I wish someone had spent a little more time to flush out the script more, but I admit I had a lot of fun with this movie. Sadly the film is on pace to maybe break even, assuming the $150 million film had a similar promotion budget. And this is due to the film is flopping in the US. Which sadly might hinder any other film collaborations between two countries on this scale.

The film has many flaws, but there are still rewards to be had. Unfortunately I feel that this is going to be a film where the full effect of the film might be lost to a lot of people who wait to see this on DVD or Netflix. Much like Gravity or Avatar, this film needs to be experienced in the theater, especially in IMAX. But unlike Avatar this movie was actually good. Or at least good enough. If you feel that you might like this movie and the film is still in theaters I say give it a shot. And if you can afford and have the opportunity to see it in IMAX I say go for it.