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Review: The Great Wall (2017)

The Great Wall (2017)

Directed by: Yimou Zhang

Premise: Set in China during the Song Dynasty, a pair of western mercenaries discover that the Great Wall has been built as a blockade against reptilian monsters. One of the mercenaries (Matt Damon) joins the Chinese warriors as they fight off a siege at the wall.

What Works: The Great Wall is the contemporary equivalent of movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. Those pictures were meant to be escapist Saturday afternoon adventures. That’s what The Great Wall is trying to be and on those terms it is a modest success. This is, at bottom, a monster movie in which the warriors stationed at the Great Wall of China must defend civilization against an invading hoard of reptilian creatures. The movie has several exceptional action set pieces and the creature design is impressive. This picture was directed by Chinese filmmaker Yimou Zhang who had previously helmed movies like The Curse of the Golden Flower and Hero. As evidenced by those movies, Yimou is a terrific craftsman and one of the consistently impressive qualities of his work is the production design. That is one of the better elements of The Great Wall. The sets and costumes look great and they strike a balance between artistic design and practical functionality.

What Doesn’t: Although The Great Wall aspires to the monster movies of the 1950s and 60s it is nowhere near as fun as those films. The action scenes are elaborate and exciting but they don’t have the sense of fun that’s found in the famous skeleton fight of Jason and the Argonauts. Some of that is a result of the contemporary filmmaking style. The movies that The Great Wall emulates were made with stop motion animation and had a hokey, almost surreal look that was charming. There is nothing charming about The Great Wall. The digital creatures generally look realistic but in the way of a video game. The influence of gaming can be found throughout The Great Wall and it is sometimes to the movie’s detriment. The storytelling suffers from videogame logic especially in the ending when The Great Wall acts out what is essentially a final boss fight. What works in the context of a video game comes across as a deus ex machina resolution in a feature film. The Great Wall suffers from coincidences and logical lapses, the most obvious being the scope of the fight. The Wall is 5500 miles long but all of the action is limited to a half mile stretch where our heroes land which by coincidence is where all the relevant military officers are stationed and where all of the monsters attack. This doesn’t make sense, especially since we’re told the creatures are getting smarter, and the film doesn’t take advantage of the novelty of staging the action at this particular landmark. There is an attempt to inject some humor into The Great Wall, mostly in glib exchanges between the mercenaries played by Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal, but these are lame. For that matter most of the dialogue of the movie is terrible and obvious. Some of the Chinese actors struggle with English inflection and Matt Damon does not help with his inconsistent accent which sometimes sounds American and at other times drifts into an American imitation of a generic European accent. The characters of The Great Wall don’t have much to them. The film is partly about the redemption of Damon’s character as he transforms from a self-centered rogue to a soldier fighting for the greater good. This transformation leads to a conflict between Damon’s character and his companion but it doesn’t amount to much. The rest of the cast is one dimensional. Everyone is exactly who they initially appear to be and they aren’t given very much to do except fight. Without characters to invest in, much of the action falls flat and the story lacks dramatic stakes.

Bottom Line: The Great Wall is an underwhelming fantasy picture. It has some impressive production values but The Great Wall lacks the intelligence and lyricism of Yimou Zhang’s other work and a movie with a premise this loony should be more fun.

Episode: #636 (February 26, 2017)