The Great Wall (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Great Wall (2017)

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Commander Lin Mae prepares her forces as part of The Nameless Order to repel a monstrous threat which emerges every sixty years.  Another alien threat, led by the mercenary William Garin, raises suspicions about his motivations while retaining respect for his fighting skills.  Lin Mae must stay wary of William and ready her troops for battle if her Chinese countrymen are to remain safe.  Zhang Yimou directs The Great Wall, with the screenplay written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy, and stars Jing Tian, Matt Damon, and Pedro Pascal.

I'm disappointed that a movie as accomplished and quietly nuanced as The Great Wall has devolved into internet shouting matches over the presence of Matt Damon.  To make my feelings clear upfront - Damon, as mercenary William Garin, is unquestionably the worst aspect of The Great Wall.  His accent appears and disappears with unusual frequency for a performer as talented as Damon, with him doing a subpar gravely Liam Neeson-esque Irish tone at times and a generic Midwestern United States flat affectation at others.  Most unusually, he's not as precise and intriguing in the fights that he honed to near perfection with director Paul Greengrass in the Bourne movies.  Damon's tasked with a character whose conflict is more internal than external, and director Zhang Yimou's formal qualities don't create a situation where Damon is able to play to his strengths.

Focusing on Damon, as the conversation at-large has chosen to do, does a disservice to the tightly crafted action in The Great Wall.  This "East meets West" epic is heavy on the integrity of the former while calling into question the integrity of the latter.  This is Yimou's finest film since House of Flying Daggers, suffering neither from the bloat of Curse of the Golden Flower nor the self-conscious "prestige" aspects of The Flowers of War.  Yimou crafts another large-scale epic with personal philosophical stakes, characters making decisions that test their ethical codes, and battles that are as visceral as they are contemplative.

Zhang Yimou's many breathers in-between the action sequences provide contemplative breaks to consider what's been lost and the escalating conflict to come.

I love how the stakes are set high so early in The Great Wall.  William, along with his mercenary companion Pero Tovar (played with excellent comedic weariness by Pedro Pascal), are presented as invaders no more or less welcome than the monsters they encounter.  Our first glimpse at the resistance against the monsters is an excellent representation of how out of their element William and Pero are.  With not a single word spoken, the bandits chasing William and Pero back off right after the soldiers of the wall - known as The Nameless Order - fire what seems like a month's worth of arrows into a perfect circle the hapless mercenary duo.  Where the mercenaries are unwelcome invaders lacking professionalism, The Nameless Order is a finely tuned fighting machine the likes of which William and Pero are unable to conceive let alone deceive.

Yimou treats us to a methodical crane shot through the inner workings of the fortress in one of the best establishing shots of his career.  Through the multitude of gears, water wheels, bodies armored and not, he patiently guides us through each layer of the fortress and the professionals keeping it running.  It's a spectacular moment of production design, setting the scope of the coming conflict, and Yimou's particular sense of humor as the crane shot ends on - what else? - a large statue of a crane that's part of the fortress' clockwork precision.  In a medium where battles tend to be chaotic or hasty affairs, Yimou's careful setup of expertly trained warriors and precise mechanisms promises a grueling fight.

This brings me to the de facto leader of The Nameless Order, Commander Lin Mae (Jin Tian), and one of the best women characters Yimou has brought to film.  Her introduction is commanding, with the camera rising from floor level and rushing forward to center on this blue armor-clad warrior with a powerful voice and haircut so sharp it could be mistaken for another weapon in The Nameless Order's arsenal.  Yimou does not let this commanding introduction go to waste, showing Lin Mae as an expert commander as her Crane Troop are the first human line of defense against the monsters.  In another action setpiece as absurd as it is awe-inspiring, the Crane Troop is responsible for bungee jumping into the mass of monsters with large spears to keep them from scaling the wall.  Yimou's use of a phallic implement in the hands of Lin Mae threatens the masculine assumptions of William and Pero, oblivious to the idea that women could be as precise in their military actions as men.

Lin Mae is also responsible for the subtle critiques against western imperialism.  It's easy to forget, especially with the way China has been demonized from western perceptions, that their conflicts have largely been kept in their borders.  They suffered brutal atrocities at the hands of the Japanese in World War 2 and joined the allies in the fight against Germany in World War 1.  There's an excellent moment between Lin Mae when she and William share their motivations for fighting.  It's a matter of imperialist survival for William, taking jobs with multiple masters, and invading China as a way to increase their firepower by obtaining black powder.  Jin Tian's carefully spoken words and distant expression mark her hesitance to trust him, and whatever positive glances William receives is as a warrior and not a man of virtue.

Ramin Djawadi's excellent music underscores one of Yimou's most heartbreaking moments in The Great Wall.

The west versus east philosophy toward dealing with death results in my favorite moments of The Great Wall - though not immediately apparent.  When William's band is assaulted by the monster with few survivors, he scrambles away to preserve his life and never honors the dead.  Lin Mae's commander suffers a similar fate, but leads to one of those drum and vocal interludes that gave me a sense of spiritual fulfillment.  William watches the spirits of those fallen drift away in fire balloons while a defiant collection of drums and vocalists sing a wonderful memorial to the dead.

It's a shame Damon's casting created such an unnecessary impenetrable wall toward recommending The Great Wall.  This was an international coproduction, with the Chinese partners clearly giving weight to how their nation is presented in comparison to the opportunistic westerners.  My advice is to consider the nuance behind the production of The Great Wall, the careful balance of respecting Chinese lore while critiquing western imperialism, and embrace the contemplative moments in-between the expertly crafted violence.  Yimou is an artist with few peers, and The Great Wall is an achievement worthy of your time and respect.

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The Great Wall (2017)

Directed by Zhang Yimou.
Screenplay written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy.
Starring Jing Tian, Matt Damon, and Pedro Pascal.

Posted by Andrew

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