When the city of Beijing was selected to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, China turned to its most internationally renowned film director, Zhang Yimou, to handle the opening and closing ceremonies at The Beijing National Stadium, a gorgeous venue dubbed “The Bird’s Nest” for the ornate latticework around the structure. Though Zhang made his name on delicate period pieces like 1990’s Ju Dou and 1991’s Raise the Red Lantern, he had more recently summoned the resources necessary to make a pair of incomparably beautiful martial arts films in 2002’s Hero and 2004’s House of Flying Daggers. With the unlimited resources supplied by a government eager to assert China’s presence on the world stage, Zhang and his team pulled off an opening ceremony of unparalleled scope, at once inspiring and intimidating in its thundering grandeur.
With that in mind, consider the curious case of The Great Wall, Zhang’s first film in English, a massive international co-production that was shot entirely in China, but features a Hollywood star, Matt Damon, in the lead role, and key supporting roles for Willem Dafoe and Pedro Pascal. In many ways, it resembles the Italian films of the ’60s and ’70s, when Burt Lancaster got dubbed into The Leopard or tough guys like Lee Van Cleef or Rod Steiger turned up in Sergio Leone Westerns. But in the new world order, where access to Chinese yuan figures heavily into how American studio dollars are spent, The Great Wall represents a fascinating and significant partnership where the two cultures mingle and clash. A certain amount of awkwardness comes with the territory.
On top of working in English with a major American star, there are other firsts in The Great Wall for Zhang, most notably the commercial mashup of a 5,500-mile-wide historic landmark with fantastical green CGI monsters. (Available in 3D, of course.) Yet the pleasant surprise of The Great Wall is how much it falls in line with the nationalist spectacle of Hero and The Olympics, and the degree to which Chinese culture and values dominate the film’s American contributions. It makes sense that the film comes to America after already collecting $224 million worldwide, and that whatever pittance it might make on these shores will only add more black ink to the ledger. For once, the story isn’t American culture infiltrating overseas, but something close to the opposite.
Garbling his way through this $150 million megaproduction like a true spaghetti Western star, Matt Damon stars as William, part of a group of mercenaries seeking a mysterious and powerful “black powder” in China during the Song Dynasty. Along with his buddy Pero (Pascal), William survives a monster attack that decimates their crew, but leaves them with evidence of an otherworldly beast slain by William’s sword. Lost without a compass, William and Pero happen upon The Great Wall, where they’re captured by The Nameless Order, a secret military force charged with guarding the country from foreign invaders.
After the leaders of the Nameless Order — General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and Commander Lin (Jing Tian) — spare their lives, William has to decide whether to pilfer the Order’s wealth of black powder or embrace the mission of his captors. His choice becomes more urgent when he learns more about the green monsters: Called the Taoties, they attack in swarms from the Gouwu Mountains every 60 years and the soldiers on the Wall are the sole line of defense keeping them from overwhelming the capital and spreading death and destruction all over the world. William’s instincts are to take the powder and run, but Commander Lin quietly persuades him on the value of trust, honor, and teamwork.
There are elements of The Great Wall that are almost inevitably corny and stilted, partly because of the lumpy interaction between Western and Eastern actors and partly because there’s something inherently silly about the austere defense of a towering landmark against hordes of CGI beasties with radioactive-green blood. And yet Zhang’s eye for color and graphical composition remains peerless: In a film about the power of teamwork and selfless commitment to a cause, the Nameless Order functions as a war machine of elegant syncopation, with formations of brilliant red and blue choreographing defensive and offensive maneuvers. Where an American production might focus on the hero’s individual contributions, William’s arc here is to drop his amoral, mercenary allegiances and join the larger fight; that Damon is diminished at the center of his own epic seems as much feature as bug.
Though The Great Wall doesn’t have the emotional punch of Hero or House of Flying Daggers, it does encourage the same surrender to visual ravishment. A sequence where William tracks the Taoties in the fog through the whistling sound of “screaming arrows” is particularly inspired, but there are plenty of other splendors that follow, like the launch of drastically unstable hot-air balloons off the wall or a frantic dash through a tower of stained glass. Call it tacky or propagandistic, but The Great Wall gives one of the world’s great visual filmmakers $150 million and an army of extras at his disposal, and he turns a monument into a playground.