Yimou Zhang is an incredibly prolific director in China, he’s done about twenty-five movies, as well as directing the Beijing 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremonies – remember how amazing those were?
My favorite movie that he’s done is called Hero – House of Flying Daggers is brilliant, but I prefer Hero, because of the use of color. A Nameless defense officer is summoned by the King of Qin regarding his battles and defeats of three warriors. As Nameless recounts the stories of these battles to the King, each flashback uses a different color to tell that particular story, and Jet Li is wonderful as the Nameless Hero.
It’s an epically beautiful movie, and if you haven’t seen it – you should. Because of it, and how much I love Zhang’s other work, I was really looking forward to The Great Wall. I was also intrigued because this was the first major Chinese movie distributed as a ‘Hollywood’ movie. China’s huge emerging film market over the last decade or so has caused several companies and directors to incorporate more things to help sell the movie in the Chinese market. The Great Wall is the first movie that did that from the other direction – including Matt Damon in an attempt to sell it to Western audiences.
The Great Wall is a historical fantasy set in the time of the Song dynasty. The story begins with a group of European mercenaries searching for ‘black powder’ who are trying to outrun a group of bandits. Their group started with about twenty, but after a mysterious encounter with a ‘thing’ of some sort one night, it is down to just two. Once of the two managed to cut off the thing’s arm. The one seems to be Irish (it’s tough to tell, to call the accent sketchy is to undersell how bad it is), the other seems to be Spanish.
They literally run into the Great Wall and are disarmed by the soldiers on it as the bandits take off. The soldiers are the Nameless Order – a sect of the Chinese military ordered by the imperial Court to guard against the horde of alien monsters that attempt to breach the wall every sixty years. Apparently, many years ago – a meteorite crashed into a mountain, and now, every sixty years, these vaguely reptilian monsters (the Taotie) stream out of the mountain, following the telepathic commands of their queen to simply consume as much as possible and feed it back to her, so that she can reproduce and they can continue to spread.
Our two mercenaries, William and Tovar, have arrived just as the first wave of Taotie for this cycle is swarming towards the wall and they get to see how the different troops in the Nameless order work together under the leadership of General Shao to battle. The Bear Troop are melee specialists; the Crane Troop are acrobatic specialists who dive off the top of the wall to slice at the monsters below. The Eagle Troop are archers, the Tiger Troop are siege engine specialists, and the Deer Troop are horse-mounted warriors. Each Troop has a designated color, and each works together in different ways to push back the Taotie. These sequences were fantastic. During the battle, one of the taotie gets on top of the wall, and William and Tovar get to demonstrate their battle capability in killing it.
The General is impressed, and agrees to let the men free to mingle with his troops. They meet Ballard, another westerner who came in search of Black Powder, but has not been allowed to leave. He attempts to talk William and Tovar into helping him steal it and leave, but William is getting interested in the leader of the Crane Troop, Lin Mae and the necessity of the fight.
During the night, two Taotie get on top of the wall, and in the ensuing battle, the General is slain, but Wang, the strategist, learns that William has a magnet with him, and this magnet causes the Taotie to be docile. They receive telepathic communications from their queen, which is how the entire Taotie force is so overwhelming and coordinated. For some reason, the magnet disrupts the communication – and causes the Taotie to basically freeze up. William helps to devise a way for them to capture a living Taotie (they’ve been removing their wounded from the battlefield, so the soldiers have not been able to capture one) to prove this theory. They do succeed in capturing one, and prove that the magnet will shut them down. The emperor’s envoy takes the Taotie and the magnet back to the capital to show the emperor.
Realizing the Taotie are suspiciously quiet, they discover a hole at the base of the wall – the queen had her army dig, and so they have burrowed their way towards the more populated capitol. She’s all about consuming, after all. Lin Mae, now in control – orders the use of hot air balloons to get Nameless troops to the capitol as soon as possible, since they have the experience fighting them, and the people in the capitol do not. Tovar and Ballard rob the armory of black powder, knock William out for trying to stop them, and take off. Ballard, of course, betrays Tovar, attempting to abandon him, but Ballard is then captured by the bandits, who accidentally blow up themselves and Ballard with the black powder he was transporting, leaving Tovar to be recaptured.
William wakes up to find that Lin has declared him to be freed so that he can warn the rest of the world. However, he instead boards the last hot air balloon with Wang and Peng Yong, a young soldier he has befriended.
They make it to the capital, rescue Lin, and set about trying to use the magnet to slow down the Taotie enough to get a shot at the queen, knowing once they destroy her, the others will be lifeless. They come up with a plan to strap the one captured taotie with black powder explosives, feed it, free it, so that it goes back to feed the queen, then they fire an arrow to set off the explosives, killing the queen. Since all the taotie are swarming around the queen in a circle, feeding her what they have consumed, it’s a good plan, but it takes a few tries. Eventually pull it off, losing both Wang and Peng in the process. Back at the wall, Lin is now general and agrees to let William and Tovar go – so they head back to Europe.
Overall, it looks great, and is certainly a fun monster movie. I will say, I felt that William, Tovar, and Ballard were all unnecessary. The movie would have been more interesting if it was just the Nameless soldiers battling the monsters, and learning the magnet could be used as a key to defeating them. There were enough interesting characters there, plus the foil of the emperor and his envoy, to keep the story going. I understand that William and Tovar were supposed to be the audience’s entrance to the story – but again, that was unnecessary. We could have come in with scouting parties of the Deer troop as they encounter Taotie scouts. The side-story of Ballard already being a captive and helping William and Tovar get to know the surroundings was unnecessary – that could have all been done visually and with no exposition. Hell, Ballard is so unnecessary he simply ends up blown up by bandits off-screen. Plus, Peng Yong was set up as a young, inexperienced soldier who eventually steps up to sacrifice himself to save everyone, he could have easily been the lead/hero of the movie. So, while I understand the addition to cross-market, I think it did the movie a disservice.
If you’ve liked Zhang’s style with his other movies, you will like the style here as well. The battle scenes are epic, and again, the use of color with the different Troops was lovely. The design of the Taotie themselves was also really interesting. Taotie literally means “gluttonous ogre” and refers to a terrifying face motif commonly found on jade carving pieces that date as far back as 3310 – 2260 BC.
In this movie, the Taotie horde has several classes with different designs, which is interesting because there are different designs of them found in art. The standard footsoldiers are brutish, all mouth – with eyes in the shoulder.
The Queen is a more elegant design, with a special fan shape telepathic organ on her head that she uses to send commands to her troops, and her eyes in what I would consider to be a more normal eye-location. There are also what I would call a special Queen’s guard group – larger, stronger, and with built in shields to help protect the queen.
All the taotie were well done, and very interesting. I would have enjoyed having at least one built practically, especially for some of the close up bits when they capture one. They were basically all CGI, and while they look good, they still don't look real. You’re making a monster movie – build a monster.
In terms of the cast, again – most of it was fantastic.
- Tian Jing steals the majority of the movie as Commander Lin Mae – from the first time you see the Crane Troop in action, which is awesome, to the point where she steps up and has to become general, leading all the troops into battle, she’s a fantastic lead, and really – this is her movie.
- Andy Lau plays Strategist Wang, and helps Lin figure out the magnet bit, and plan the final downfall of the taotie. He’s elegant and quiet, and yet still is completely magnetic when on-screen.
- Hanyu Zhang plays General Shao, and commander of the Bear Troop, and he’s every bit the big, bold leader until he is taken out battling the sneaky taotie.
- Lu Han plays Peng Yong, and again – in a movie that didn’t include the three Westerners, he would have been the lead. The story could have been about his joining the Nameless order, balking during the first battle, then finding his courage, and finally working with Lin and Wang to help defeat the taotie. A missed opportunity.
- Kenny Lin plays Commander Chen of the Eagle Troop.
- Eddie Peng plays Commander Wu of the Tiger Troop.
- Xuan Huang plays Commander Deng of the Deer Toop
- Ryan Zheng plays Shen, the imperial envoy and Wang Junkai plays The Emperor, who seems to be more cowardly then helpful at this point.
- Matt Damon plays William, and I’ve already stated I felt the character was pointless, but let me just say this – if you want the character to be Irish, please cast an Irish actor, or at the very least, someone who can do the Irish accent. Damon’s is questionable at best, and at some points, it simply disappears. Damon is game to do what he can with what he’s given, but honestly, William doesn’t really contribute. He suggests capturing a live taotie to test the magnet theory, but I’m pretty sure they could have figured that out without him.
- Pedro Pascal plays Tovar, and again – he’s fine with what he’s given, but if William is useless, then Tovar is beyond useless. Only there to steal black powder and add in comedy bits that are not funny. I will say I appreciated the action sequences with the two of them, showing how well they worked together.
- Willem Dafoe plays Ballard, who exists only to provide exposition and get blown up. He contributes nothing!
Overall, I still really enjoyed it – I love a fun monster movie, and I really love the way Zhang directs – the battle sequences are astounding. It did get some early whitewashing critiques, but I would say those are unfounded, because this is not a case where a white actor was given a role originally intended for an Asian actor, in fact, his being an outsider is key to his role, so there’s not really an issue there. The greater issue is just how uninteresting and unnecessary his character is!
I actually could have used a little more of the taotie because they were fascinating. So, give me a director’s cut where Damon, Pascal, and Dafoe are removed, Lu Han and Tian Jing are the two leads, and there’s even more taotie action - I would absolutely love that! To date, it is the most expensive Chinese film ever made, with a budget of $150 million. Now, it’s only made $34.8 million here, so a big dud for us, but worldwide, it’s up to $301 million.
6 out of 10 – gained points for the cool taotie, but lost points for them having eyes on their shoulders - that just seems impractical. Gained points for the taotie queen, I’m a sucker for an awesome alien queen. Gained points for the Crane Troop in general and Lin Mae in particular. Awesome.
Bonus – Cast Interviews
Special Bonus – the music video for the song from the movie ‘Battle Field’ by Jane Zhang. Who knew this was a thing?