Sunday, March 5, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: The Great Wall

Good news, everyone! The January/February Film Dumping Ground that wonderful time of year when the major studios burn off all their celluloid bombs is almost over! There are some awesome-looking movies on the horizon, if we can all hold on for just a little longer.

The Great Wall was written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy, with "story credit" by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshal Herskovitz. It was directed by Zhang Yimou.

Bernard and Miro are creative partners who previously wrote The Great Raid, The Uninvited, Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time and The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Gilroy wrote Delores Clayburne, Extreme Measures, The Devil's Advocate, Armageddon (believe it or not he was just one of the FOUR people it took to write that "classic"), Bait, Proof Of Life, Michael Clayton, Duplicity and State Of Play. He then entered his "Bourne" period, writing The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Legacy (the only film in the franchise to NOT star Matt Damon). Odd that someone who specializes in gritty and grounded dramas would be picked to write an epic Chinese fantasy film.

If the name Tony Gilroy sounds familiar to you, there's a reason for that. Last year Disney was unhappy with their upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and paid Gilroy $5 million bucks to come in and rewrite the entire third act. Gilroy not only rewrote the ending, but spend five weeks reshooting and reediting the entire film.

Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft) is an author who penned The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War. He also wrote the screenplay for the World War Z film.

Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz are prolific writers, producers and directors. They've worked mostly in TV, but also co-wrote Love & Other Drugs and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back and The Last Samurai. That's interesting, as this film is pretty much The Last Samurai but with monsters.

Zhang Yimou is, not surprisingly, a Chinese director, with over thirty credits to his name. Most of his films have never played in America, but a few have managed to sneak through. He directed HeroCurse Of The Golden Flower and 
House Of Flying Daggers.

The film's set in a fantasy version of Medieval China, in which the true reason the Great Wall was built was to keep out a horde of ravenous alien monsters. There's also a bit of The Last Samurai thrown in for good measure, as Matt Damon's character encounters a foreign culture and quickly becomes a part of it.

I'm bucking the trend of public opinion again here, but I liked this movie quite a bit! It's got everything a movie needs: action, adventure, fantasy, elaborate fantasy armor and best of all, monsters! What's not to like?

I honestly don't get why the movie hasn't connected with audiences. Is it because the general public doesn't realize this is a fantasy movie? Do they think it's a dry historical drama, and that's why the film's not performing as expected? If so, blame the Universal Marketing Department on that one.

Director Zhang Yimou is well-known for his beautiful cinematography and bold, gorgeous use of color. This was especially true of 2004's House Of Flying Daggers.

Zhang continues this in The Great Wall. The various armies of the Nameless Order are decked out in brightly-hued armor, and each scene is painstakingly composed and filled with dazzling colors. You've heard the phrase, "Every frame's a painting?" That's definitely true here.

This is the most expensive Chinese film ever made, clocking in at a whopping $150 million U.S. dollars. Oddly enough, that's just slightly more than Monster Truck's inexplicable budget of $125 million. The difference is Monster Trucks was shot like a cheap sitcom, and I have no idea where all that money went. Not so with The Great Wall. Elaborate sets and costumes, hordes of CGI and practical monsters, hundreds of extras every penny spent is right up there on the screen.

From the minute the film was announced, the American PC Police started sounding off over the fact that actor Matt Damon was cast as lead character William Garin, accusing the producers of "whitewashing."


Perhaps the PC Police should do their homework before they open their noise holes and complain. The Great Wall is the first ever partnership between China Film Group, Universal Pictures and Legendary studios. Did you get that? This is a Chinese film. Produced and shot in China, by a Chinese film company, starring mostly Chinese actors.

China Film Group specifically sought out Matt Damon to star in the movie, in an effort to give it worldwide box office appeal. That doesn't sound like whitewashing to me. "Whitewashing" is when Hollywood casts a caucasian actor in a traditionally ethnic role. The part of William was written as a white, European man. Matt Damon didn't elbow any 
Chinese actors out of their parts. So how the hell could it be considered whitewashing?

As for China casting a white actor to boost the box office— so what? Hollywood does the EXACT same thing on a regular basis! Why do you think Fox cast Donnie Yen and Wen Jian in Rogue One last year? It wasn't because of their acting ability, it was to try and give the film more appeal in China (it didn't work, by the way). 

Why is it fine when Hollywood does this, but wrong and somehow offensive when China follows suit?

Now the "White Savior" accusations... ehhhh, those are a little harder to dismiss. Whenever a movie features a white character who travels to a region and saves the natives from a threat they just couldn't seem to handle themselves, that's the White Savior Trope (see 47 Ronin for a prime example). This is pretty much exactly what happens in The Great Wall, as Matt Damon's William character encounters the Nameless Order and becomes invaluable in their war agains the Tao Tei.

White Savior movies are generally filmed in America, and are considered racist and culturally insensitive. Again, this is a Chinese production. Is it possible for Chinese filmmakers to be racist against themselves?

That's a question for someone smarter than I am.

Sadly, the film doesn't seem to be capturing the attention of American audiences. So far it's grossed a very anemic $38 million here in the U.S. Fortunately it's doing much better in Asia (natch) and the rest of the world, where it's grossed around $270 million. In all it's made over $300 million so far, against its $150 million budget. As we all know by now, due to marketing and other costs, these days movies need to gross around twice their production budget just to break even. The Great Wall's finally reached that barrier (barely), so anything it makes after this will be profit. I'm betting the producers were banking on it being a much, much bigger hit.


The Plot:  

The film takes place during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279) and helpfully provides us with some stats about the Great Wall. It spans over 5,500 miles, took over 1,700 years to build and has protected the country from many dangers, some of which are known, and others that are legend. Got all that? OK, on with the story.

Irish mercenary William Garin (played by Matt Damon), Pero Tovar (played by Pedro Pascal, of Game Of Thrones fame) and several other men are being chased through the Gobi desert by Khitan raiders. William and his band traveled to China in search of a mysterious black powder that can be used as a powerful weapon. They lose the raiders and hide out in a cave. One of the men takes inventory of their supplies. He finds a magnetic stone, says it's useless and tosses it aside. For some reason, William picks it up, saying it may be useful someday. Foreshadowing!

During the night an unseen creature takes out all the men except for William and Tovar. The creature rushes at William and he slashes at it with his sword, cutting off its arm. The creature's killed when it rears backward in pain and falls off a steep cliff. William wraps up the creature's arm, hoping someone will be able to I.D. it.

William and Tovar are chased by the raiders again. They ride up a steep hill and somehow don't see the Great Wall until it's right in front of them. A vast army mans the top of the Wall, and fires a ring of arrows around William and Tovar. They drop their weapons and surrender. Commander Lin (played by Jing Tian), who luckily happens to speak English, takes the men to see General Shao (played by Zhang Hanyu).

Shao doesn't believe William's story that he and Tovar are simple traders who were ambushed, and orders them locked up. Suddenly the court sees the severed monster arm, and reacts in shock. Strategist Wang (played by Andy Lau 
examines the arm, and says it's from a monster called a Tao Tei. 

Wang then infodumps a ton of backstory to William, saying that twenty centuries ago, there was an Emperor who was consumed by greed (imagine that!). A meteor landed in the mountains, and shortly afterward a horde of alien monsters attacked, as punishment for mankind's greed. These monsters, called the Tao Tei, attack and kill anything they see and feed it to their Queen, who controls them all. 

The Great Wall was built to hold back the Tao Tei, and the Nameless Order, a special division of the Imperial Army, was created to battle them. The Order is divided into five special units: the Bear Troop (who specialize in close combat), the all-female Crane Troop (consisting of bungee-diving acrobats), the Eagle Troop (archers), the Tiger Troop (who man siege engines such as trebuchets) and the horse-mounted Deer Troop.

Wang says the Tao Tei rise up and attack every sixty years. He thought their regularly scheduled attack was still weeks away, but the fact that William encountered one of the monsters indicates they're coming early this time. For some reason, Shao still orders William and Tovar locked up.

As the men are being taken to the dungeon, a horde of Tao Tei come down from the mountains and attack. Shao, Lin and thousands of other soldiers spring into action and defend the Wall, in a huge and expensive action setpiece. They shoot flaming arrows and cannonballs into the horde, wiping out hundreds of them. Lin is part of the Crane Troop, and risks her life as she gracefully dives off the Wall on a bungee cord, killing dozens of monsters before bouncing back up to the top. Others in her Troop aren't so lucky.

Peng Yong, a young and terrified soldier from the Bear Troop, guards William and Tovar during the battle. As the human losses mount, William tells Peng to go help his fellow soldiers. Peng cuts William and Tovar free, and they arm themselves and fight the Tao Tei. Peng's cornered by one of the monsters, but William kills it and saves him. The Tao Tei Queen then signals a retreat, and the monsters take their dead and wounded and return to the mountains.

William and Tovar's battle skills earns the respect of General Shao and Commander Lin. Shao allows the two to stay on as guests, and holds a feast in their honor. William meets Ballard (played by Willem Dafoe), another European who also came to the region searching for black powder. Ballard's been a "guest" of Shao for years, and warns William that the secretive Nameless Order will never let them leave.

The next day, Lin shows William how the Crane Troops fight by leaping off the Wall on bungee cords. She asks him to try it, but he refuses, saying he doesn't trust her enough to make the jump (?).

That night, Ballard meets with William and Tovar, and they form a plan to steal a supply of black powder and escape while the Nameless Order is distracted by the Tao Tei.

Just then an alarm sounds, indicating a Tao Tei has been spotted on top of the Wall. Shao, Lin, William, Tovar and several other soldiers quietly investigate. They see a lone Tao Tei ahead, sniffing around the Wall. Suddenly Shao realizes it's a trap, and another monster is creeping up from behind. He turns to fight and kills the rear Tao Tei, while William and Lin fight the other. The monsters are killed, but Shao's mortally wounded. Before he dies, he places Lin in charge of the Nameless Order.

Wang receives a scroll from Bianliang, the capital city of China of the Song Dynasty, which tells of the legend of a Tao Tei that was once pacified by a magnetic stone. William remembers the magnet he's carrying, and suggests they test the theory. The soldiers lure the Tao Tei to the Wall, sedate one and try to reel it in with harpoon guns. When the harpoon pulls out, William slides down one of the chains to try and pull the monster in. Tovar follows, and the two are quickly surrounded by Tao Tei. Lin fires exploding black powder rockets at the monsters, scaring them off. One of the rockets comes too close to William, knocking him out.

He wakes up and sees Lin by his side. She tells him they successfully captured the Tao Tei. Wang approaches the caged monster with the magnet, causing it to stop thrashing and lie down calmly. Apparently magnets (how do they work?) scramble the Tao Tei's ability to receive signals from their Queen. For some reason, an Envoy from the Capitol insists the captive Tao Tei be taken to the Emperor.

Meanwhile, Tovar's pissed with William, accusing him of forgetting their escape plans so he can play hero and hang out with Lin. William denies this, saying if they don't help the Chinese stop the Tao Tei, they'll eventually spread across Europe as well. Tovar says he doesn't recognize William anymore.

Later, a group of soldiers discover a huge hole near the Wall. Wang realizes the Tao Tei are becoming smarter, and simply tunneled under the Wall. Whoops! I guess no one ever considered that possibility! Wang says the monsters are no doubt headed for the Captial City.

While the soldiers are preoccupied, Tovar and Ballard blow open the supply room, load up a couple of horses with black powder and make their escape attempt. William tries to stop them, but Ballard knocks him out. Lin finds the unconscious William, and accuses him of trying to steal the black powder. He admits that was his original plan, but he's changed his mind and wants to help her fight the Tao Tei. She doesn't believe him, and orders him locked up. Peng steps up and says he witnessed William try to stop Tovar and Ballard. Lin believes Peng, but locks up William anyway (?).

Outside the Wall, Tovar and Ballard escape nto the Gobi Desert. Ballard ditches Tovar and rides off with the black powder and supplies. He's immediately captured by the Khitan raiders. They go through his supplies, carelessly tossing a container of black powder into their campfire. Ballard tries to warn them, but it explodes, killing both him and the raiders. Tovar is re-captured by the Nameless Order.

In the Capitol, the Envoy presents the captured Tao Tei to the Emperor. He shows him how the magnet can control the beast, but inadvertently takes it too far away. It rears up and sends out a distress call, alerting the Queen to its location. She sends her vast horde toward the City.

General Lin says they'll never make it to the Capitol in time on horseback, so she orders her troops to fly there in hot air balloons (!). Wang releases William from the dungeon, urging him to leave while he can and warn the outside world about the Tao Tei. William refuses to go, insisting on joining the battle. He boards the last balloon with Wang. Just before they take off, Peng, who the other soldiers consider a coward, rushes up and asks to go with them.

William and the others then fly to the Capitol City. They arrive to see it's in ruins, overrun by Tao Tei. They see the Queen in the middle of the City, protected by an impenetrable circle of monsters. William spots Lin's balloon ahead as it crashes into a building. He lowers a line and saves her from being devoured. 

They land in the Emperor's palace, which is surrounded by Tao Tei. Wang comes up with an idea that's so crazy it just might work. They'll take the captive Tao Tei, tie black powder explosives to it and feed it meat. They'll then release it, and it'll run straight for the Queen to regurgitate its food into her mouth. Then they can shoot a flaming arrow at it to detonate the black powder from afar, blowing up the Tao Tei and its Queen. Hopefully once the Queen's gone, the other monsters will stand down.

They carry rig the Tao Tei and carry it through the sewers under the palace. Suddenly a horde of monsters break into the tunnel and head toward the main cast. Peng finally finds his courage and sacrifices himself to save the others by detonating a black powder bomb. The tunnel collapses, separating William and Co. from the monsters.

William, Lin and Wang release the captured Tao Tei. Sure enough, it heads straight for the Queen and starts disgorging its meal for her. William and Lin climb to the top of the palace tower and fire off several flaming arrows at the weaponized Tao Tei. Unfortunately they're deflected by the monsters. Wang holds off the Tao Tei at the bottom of the tower with the magnet stone. He realizes there's only one way to win, and tosses the magnet up to Lin. Wang is immediately devoured.

William takes the magnet and throws it into the horde. It lands in front of the Queen, temporarily calming the monsters. Lin shoots a flaming arrow into crowd, igniting the black powder and destroying the Queen in a satisfying explosion. As in pretty much every movie like this, once the Queen's gone, the thousands of other Tao Tei freeze up, and presumably either die or are killed by the soldiers.

Lin is promoted to Regional General. She offers William a reward of black powder, but he refuses, instead asking that Tovar be freed from the dungeon. Lin agrees. Tovar's freed, and the two men reconcile. As they head back to Europe, Tovar says he's surprised William wants to leave Lin and the Wall. William says he doesn't, but he can't trust Tovar to make it back home alone, implying he'll go back someday.

 As we're told in the opening captions, the Great Wall was built over a period of 1,700 years. The Tao Tei regularly raid every six decades. That means they attacked about 28 times before the wall was finally completed!

So how were the Nameless Order able to hold them back all that time with an incomplete wall? 

From what we see in the film, it looks like the Tao Tei always attack from one particular location in the mountains. I'm betting the Nameless Order started the Wall in that area, and gradually expanded it in both directions. There was probably also a lot of hand-to-hand ground fighting in the early years before the Wall was finished.

• Since this film is titled The Great Wall, one would think the crew filmed it on location, right? After all, they've got the world's biggest movie set (5,500 mile long!) just waiting there for them!

Oddly enough, NONE of the movie was actually filmed anywhere near the actual Great Wall. Apparently the Chinese government wouldn't allow it, fearing the film crew would damage the culturally priceless monument.

Instead the film crew built two sections of the Wall at a studio in Qingdao— one just a few feet high, and the other full height. Each section was around 650 feet long. They were placed in front of the largest green screen ever used in a movie.

 Matt Damon's William character has what I think is supposed to be an Irish accent. Honestly his accent's so poor I don't know what the hell it was supposed to be. It could have been literally anything French, Dutch, even Jamaican there's no way to tell.

Whatever it is, it fades out for long stretches of the film as Damon apparently forgets about it.

I've always wondered about this "disappearing accent" thing whenever it happens in a movie. There are hundreds of people standing around on a film set. You'd think at least one of them would notice that the star of the film apparently forgot about his accent, and say something to the director.

 Commander Lin is played by Chinese actress Jing Tian. If you live in the U.S. you've likely never heard of her, but you soon will. She stars in the upcoming Kong: Skull Island as well as Pacific Rim: Uprising.

 Andy Lau plays Strategist Wang in the film. Lau was previously in director Zhang Yimou's House Of Flying Daggers. Lau is an incredibly prolific Hong Kong actor, who's starred in over 160 films. He's also a singer-songwriter (!) and a movie producer. He was voted the Number 1 Box Office Actor in Hong Kong from 1985 to 2005.

• I really liked the design of the Tao Tei. They were just different enough to seem alien, without looking totally unbelievable, if that makes any sense. The eyes on their shoulders were an especially unusual and cool touch.

I also liked the way the Tao Tei communicated with one another, by vibrating a membrane they could extend above their heads. A pretty clever way for them to signal one another! Well done, design team!

The look of the Tao Tei reminded me a bit of the work of illustrator Wayne Barlowe, who's designed aliens and creatures for many, many films. Barlowe was responsible for the awesome Kaiju designs in Pacific Rim.

• As I mentioned earlier, Max Brooks, writer of World War Z, is given story credit on The Great Wall. I can definitely spot his influence on the film.

Several times the Tao Tei attack the Wall by piling their bodies up against it in a huge mound, so others can run right up them and onto the top. The fast moving zombies in World War Z used the exact same trick!

• Speaking of the Tao Tei, whenever we see their masses attacking the Great Wall, it looks a lot like the battles in The Lord Of The Rings films. Particularly the Battle Of Helm's Deep, where thousands of orcs attacked the stronghold's protective wall. That's a good thing, by the way!

• The Nameless Order had some pretty cool, colorful and wonderfully elaborate armor. Some of it reminded me a bit of the elven armor in The Lord Of The Rings films, with a little of Excalibur thrown in for good measure.

Each division of the Nameless Order had their own customized armor, complete with their specific animal theme (Bear, Crane, Eagle, Tiger and Deer). The detail in the armor is amazing, and I wish the film would have given us a closer look at it.

• Peng is sent to work in the kitchen as punishment for his cowardice. Later we see him washing dishes in the kitchen, and he's wearing an apron over his elaborate armor! Seriously? He wears his heavy armor to wash dishes?

I'm pretty sure I know why they did this up to this point, every time we see Peng he's wearing his full armor, complete with helmet. I'm betting the director was afraid tha if Peng put on his normal, everyday casual attire, the audience wouldn't recognize him. So he gets to wash dishes in full armor.

• So in the third act, William, Wang and Peng fly a hot air balloon to the Capitol. I get that William was kind of preoccupied here, but I feel like he should have been a bit more wowed and affected by the fact that he was FLYING IN A GODDAMNED BALLOON! Prior to this moment, the highest he'd probably never been more than a few feet off the ground. He and probably Wang and Peng as well  should have been absolutely gobsmacked.

• Once the Queen is destroyed, the rest of the Tao Tei freeze up for a few seconds and then die or are killed by the Nameless Order It's not clear which.

This is called the "Keystone Army Trope," and it's used ad infinitum in sci-fi and fantasy films. It allows a small band of heroes to destroy one key element of a massive invasion force or war machine, such as a queen or mothership. Once this essential element is taken out, the super weapon and/or army is instantly eradicated. This eliminates the need for the heroes to have to deal with millions of advancing troops, and is a quick, cheap, but unsatisfying way to wrap up the film.

Of course the problem with this trope is its unbelievably. What leader in their right mind would design a battles station or command an army with one incredibly obvious and fatal flaw?

The Keystone Army Trope is used in The Avengers, Battle: Los Angeles, Edge Of Tomorrow (aka Live, Die, Repeat), Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Independence Day and Independence Day: Resurgence, I, Robot, Oblivion, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace, and many, many more.

• It turns out that the Tao Tei actually have a basis in Chinese mythology! Well, sort of. Ancient writings speak of the Taotie (all one word, spelled a bit differently), a monster that was extremely greedy and would eat anything in sight. Sound familiar? In fact the monster was so greedy that it would even eat its own body if there was nothing else around. As a result of this, the Taotie ate too much and died. It then became a symbol of gluttony, and was used to describe people who were too greedy.

Because of the whole "eating its own body" thing, the Taotie is usually depicted as just a highly stylized head with a large mouth. This monster motif often appears on ritual bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties.

Others believe the Taotie motif represents Chi You, an ancient tribal leader who fought against Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor. When Chi You's uprising failed, Huang Di ordered him beheaded. Some scholars believe the "head only" design motif represents Chi You, and is a warning for those that covet wealth and power.

Since no one can agree on the origin of the Taotie design, the movie pretends it represents alien monsters who crash-landed in a meteor in Northern China. Sounds reasonable to me! If you look closely in the movie, the alien Queen actually has a series of raised lines on her forehead that resemble the traditional Taotie design! Cool!

The Great Wall is a fun, fantasy adventure filled with alien monsters, awesome armor and plenty of action. The script's fairly smart, containing few if any eye-rolling moments. It ain't high art, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Don't listen to the haters trying to drum up controversy over the casting, and just enjoy the film for what it is. I give it a B.

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