One of the most ambitious Chinese films ever attempted, auteur Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall is an optical feast packed with thrilling fight sequences, breath taking costuming, and unbelievable compositions, all of which desperately attempt to hide the shallow and underwhelming story that strings the epic loosely together.
John Myhre's production direction is the entire affair. Harnessing ethereal costuming by Mayes Rubeo, stellar art direction by Helen Jarvis, and Gordon Sims's mythological set pieces, all of the ingredients are present for a five star meal, except the fire of passion. The script, penned by Tony Gilroy, Doug Miro, and Carlo Bernard recycles every possible fantasy epic cliché' into a paper mache wading pool. Every character's depth and motivations are inscribed on their colored armor, every rogue is in fact a rogue, and every coward will eventually have their moment of glory. Even Matt Damon's central hooker (mercenary) with a heart of a gold surrenders to this concept, featuring a nails on chalkboard accent and a character arc foretold from the synopsis, let alone a trailer.
Stuart Dryburgh and Zhao Xiaoding's cinematography is both a boon and hindrance. The elegance that frames each action sequence is digital poetry, capturing Nuo Sun's preternatural fight choreography with a cadence that rivals superhero films. There is a beautiful scene involving floating funerary lights that is blissfully infuriating, as it highlights the plethora of squandered possibilities. This, combined with the astounding technical elements always leaves the viewer wanting more. The Great Wall is the first precious bites of a bloody filet mignon, filled with wonder and satisfaction, but the pickings are regrettably thin.
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Willem Dafoe and Pedro Pascal round out the cast, with Pascal bringing his notorious guile to every scene, but it is Chinese star Jing Tian whose Crane commander steals the spotlight. The Crane troops themselves have the dubious honor of the film's best and most brutal purpose, soaring acrobatically into harm's way, complete with avian iconography inscribed into their azure armor. Tian does an excellent job with the paltry material she is given, echoing the film's unrelenting ability to make you want more.
Debuting in theaters tomorrow, The Great Wall is an epic visual experience, but beneath the colors and the flash, there is little that resonates. If you're looking for a skin deep action film with breathtaking CGI and sublime aesthetics, this is worth seeing in 3D. The technical work is so remarkable; it jettisons the final product into Pyrrhic levels of tragedy. If you're looking for a story with passion and characters to care about, wait for streaming.