Friday, February 17, 2017

The Great Wall: Great fun!

The Great Wall (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and fantasy action violence

By Derrick Bang

According to report, this film cost $150 million.

Rarely will you see money spent so well. Every dollar is visible on the screen.

As a monstrous assault threatens to overwhelm the Great Wall's resident army, Lin Mae
(Jing Tian) and her most trusted warriors — from left, William Garin (Matt Damon),
Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) and an Imperial Guard soldier (Cheney Chen) — lead a
small unit in a stealth mission, hoping to out-flank the creatures.
Mayes C. Rubeo’s costumes alone probably stretched the budget to the limit. If she doesn’t win the 2017 Academy Award for costume design, there is no justice.

The Great Wall is one of the fabled “cast of thousands” sagas that we’ve not seen for decades. Director Zhang Yimou’s period adventure is a stylish, rip-snortin’ thrill ride that hits the ground running and never lets up: an exciting and thoroughly entertaining blend of Aliens and 1964’s Zulu, with the athletic grace of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

It is, and well deserves to be called, a true epic. And we also don’t get those very often, these days.

Granted, the deliberate inclusion of Western actors — apparently essential, to court the all-important American market — is a bit of an eyebrow-lifter. Placing Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal in 12th century China, with little more than a token explanation of how their characters could have gotten there, is quite contrived; no surprise that this film’s six (!) credited scripters didn’t try hard to explain it.

But once beyond that hiccup, the story zips right along; Zhang paces and choreographs the complex action sequences with the authority of a master conductor. That’s no surprise, coming from the director who similarly entertained us with Hero and House of Flying Daggers, along with equally compelling “straight” dramas such as Raise the Red Lantern and The Flowers of War.

Even the establishing tableaus are breathtaking, as cinematographers Stuart Dryburth and Xiaoding Zhao traverse the expanse of John Myhre’s production design. We’ve not seen world-building on this scale since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

That comparison is apt for another reason, since Damon’s amazing bow-and-arrow skills can’t help evoking fond memories of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas.

The story begins with a prologue of sorts, as William Garin (Damon) and his quintet of battle-scarred mercenaries attempt to outrun a much larger desert tribe. Our mercenary heroes (?) have come to Northern China in search of a fabled “black powder” that is capable of making great weapons.

They successfully escape, camping down for what they hope will be a restful night. But they’re suddenly attacked by an unseen something that quickly eviscerates all but William and Pero Tovar (Pascal). William manages to hack a limb off the beast, which then plunges to its doom down a deep canyon. But the severed claw is terrifying in its own right: huge, reptilian and unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

The persistent desert riders reappear the next morning, forcing William and Pero to flee ever higher up the mountains, until...

...they crest a ridge and find themselves facing China’s Great Wall, arrayed with thousands of bow- and sword-wielding soldiers. All with their weapons trained on these two interlopers.

A suggestion to quickly kill William and Pero is countermanded by Gen. Shao (Hanyu Zhang), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) and Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), all high-ranking officers of The Nameless Order. When we further learn that the Order is tasked with defending the Great Wall, which stands between a hideous enemy and the massive city surrounding the nearby Imperial Palace, we can’t help thinking of Game of Thrones, with its similar Night’s Watch soldiers guarding the huge ice wall that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the monsters beyond.

Homage ... or bald theft?

Not that it really matters, but the similarities are pretty blatant.


William and Pero learn that the claw belongs to a Tao Tei, an ancient, mythical species that lives deep within the Jade Mountain, and rises every 60 years for eight days, to feed upon humanity as a punishment for mankind’s greed. (Seems like we could use the Tao Tei these days, but that’s another story.) The creatures always drag their dead away, so nobody has ever held a claw such as the one William has brought along.

And anybody who can slay a Tao Tei, in close combat, must be a great warrior.

It’s a little more complicated than that, William having benefited from some geological luck, but the upshot is that he and Pero are allowed to live long enough to witness — and unwillingly participate in — the first en masse Tao Tei assault. After which, well, Gen. Shao and the others view their visitors with even more respect.

The action notwithstanding — and it’s spectacular, edge-of-the-seat stuff — the Order’s operational structure is fascinating in its own right. The massive army is divided into five factions, easily identified by color. Commander Chen (Lin Gengxin) leads the red-garbed Eagle Corps of crossbow marksmen, who also wield super-sized, impressively nasty “repeater crossbows.” Gen. Shao leads the close-quarter combat soldiers of the silver Bear Corps.

Lin Mae leads the balletic, blue-garbed, all-female Crane Corps, whose gravity-defying aerial assaults must be seen, to be believed: an incredibly imaginative style of fighting. Commander Deng (Xuan Huang) heads the purple Deer Corps, the Order’s cavalry and infantry unit.

Commander Wu (Eddie Peng Yu-Yen), finally, leads the gold Tiger Corps, the fortress’ engineering and artillery forces. The latter unit is responsible for some massive, way-clever gadgets — including ingeniously enhanced trebuchets — that certainly never existed in the 12th century, but look like they could have.

Each one of these factions gets plenty of screen time, allowing us to appreciate the wealth of detail that went into distinctive weapons, battle garb and even behavior. We cannot help being impressed.

As for the Tao Tei, they’re like Jurassic Park raptors on steroids. The multitudinous drones — thousands upon thousands of them — are the primary attack force, moving with frightening speed, and quite difficult to kill. Their viciously intelligent assaults are coordinated telepathically by a single queen, which is protected by a surrounding phalanx of about 20 “guardians”: a third gender (?) with armor-plated headgear that, when raised in concert, can deflect all weapons.

The problem, Gen Shao explains to William and Pero, is that the beasts have evolved over time, becoming smarter, larger and more numerous, in part because of the humans they’ve killed every 60 years. Should this new wave breach the wall and devour all the helpless people in the nearby city, the Tao Tei would become an unstoppable force that could take over the entire world.

Which sorta-kinda makes it William and Pero’s fight, as well. Not that William minds too much, since he’s soon smitten by Lin Mae. Pero, though, is a tougher sell ... particularly when he and William encounter Ballard (Willem Dafoe), an earlier Western visitor whose presence has been tolerated for 25 years, and who now hopes that his new “friends” will help him escape. With some of the fabled black powder.

Nothing like a little behind-the-scenes intrigue, to further goose an already exhilarating story.

Damon holds focus reasonably well, as the heroic interloper whose bow and close-combat skills prove beneficial on numerous occasions. (“Matt Damon saves Asia,” quipped one of the viewers, during Wednesday evening’s preview screening.) William also displays some shrewd battle smarts, which is a welcome touch.

Pascal’s Pero gets all the best one-liners, his hardened cynicism in contrast with William’s flutters of long-disused integrity. Damon and Pascal share an enjoyable dynamic, which Zhang exploits well. On the other hand, Pero’s absence from most of the third-act climax is a glaringly missed opportunity, and I can’t imagine what the writers were thinking.

Jing is appropriately stern, resourceful and regal as Lin Mae: every inch the sort of battle-hardened female warrior much beloved in Chinese legends. We don’t doubt her skills for a second.

Lu Han makes a strong impression as Peng Yong, a young Bear Corps soldier whose willingness to serve can’t quite conceal fear and nervous clumsiness; he will, needless to say, get a chance to shine as events proceed. Lau, finally, lends authoritative snap as Strategist Wang, the Order’s chief scientist and historian, whose close analysis of Tao Tei behavior might prove useful. (Let’s hear it for the resident bookworm!)

The film’s 103 minutes zip right along, Zhang and editors Mary Jo Markey and Craig Wood in total command of both their film, and our emotions. If the first Tao Tei assault is awesome — and it is — what follows is even more suspensefully spectacular. Zhang doesn’t exhaust all the good stuff in the first act. The visuals and effects work are simply awesome.

I very much hope that The Great Wall finds an appreciative audience, here in the States; it certainly deserves to. Goodness knows, we can use this sort of grand-scale cinematic entertainment during the big-screen winter doldrums.

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