Just like every other industry, film production is finding new ways of boosting its bottom line, whether it be through co-productions, a myriad of backers or investors, or smarter marketing. One of the biggest targets of the past few years have been co-productions with China or Hollywood films featuring Chinese actors. With a population of approximately 1.39 billion people and a growing middle class, China offers a massive amount of potential. 'Now You See Me 2' only made $US65 million in America, versus the US$97 million it took in China - and all from setting part of the film in Macau, giving Jay Chou a minor roll, and deliberately choosing to feature him on the poster. Now, in possibly the biggest co-production gamble yet, 'The Great Wall' is the most expensive film ever shot entirely in China, whilst featuring a smattering of international actors to provide a global appeal. Following a warm reception in China, will the rest of the world take the bait?
Set in the Song dynasty, two foreigners, William (Matt Damon, 'Patriots Day') and Tovar (Pedro Pascal, 'Game Of Thrones') are all that remains of a mercenary group searching for mythical black powder. Captured by a Chinese military order who guard The Great Wall, they soon find themselves in an aeons-old battle against an army of hideous monsters. As the fighting escalates, they must decide whether to escape with fellow prisoner Ballard (Willem Dafoe, 'Finding Dory') or stay and help protect the world from being overrun by these hideous creatures.
First off: the numbers speak volumes. The film was made for US$135 million, growing to around US$150 million when including the marketing budget. Debuting in China in December 2016, the film has made over US$170 million there already, and nearly US$220 million internationally, without yet opening in a few key regions such as the UK, Australia and United States. With that healthy profit, and presumably more to come, 'The Great Wall' could theoretically be seen as a success.
The problem is, this is an absolute travesty of a film. There accusations of "whitewashing" and enabling the "white saviour narrative" - yet I believe these are some of the least of the film's problems. The biggest are the visual effects, which look half-finished, completely amateurish and entirely unbelievable. This is a shame, as industry stalwarts Industrial Light & Magic were in charge of this department. Watching the trailer, the swarming monsters may also seem a little reminiscent of 'World War Z'. That's no coincidence either - 'World War Z's' writer Max Brooks was responsible for conceiving the story of 'The Great Wall'. However, there are some interesting (if not somewhat ridiculous) Cirque du Soleil-like stunts in the action sequences that are quite impressive.
The problem is, this is an absolute travesty of a film.
If the visuals aren't enough to put you off, the combined appalling dialog and terrible acting should. Every line from the mouths of Damon, Dafoe and Pascal is either desperately slapstick or uncomfortably clunky, as though converted from Mandarin to English using Google Translate. To add insult to injury, these three accomplished actors would appear more comfortable in 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', providing very little depth, emotion or interest outside of the action scenes. The Chinese cast truly show these three up, with Tian Jing a clear highlight - poised, controlling, powerful and authoritative, she has a brilliant command of the screen.
Artistically, this is one of the worst examples of a co-production in a long time. Rather than being polished and slick, it comes off as cheap and nasty, shambolic, lacklustre and, at times, unbearably cringe-worthy. There's very little positive to say about this messy, unappealing film - and yet, perhaps it's all irrelevant, since from a financial standpoint, it's done exactly what it was made to do. From a creative and cultural perspective, perhaps it would have been better if 'The Great Wall' was left in the hands of the Chinese.