The Great Wall
The Great Wall
Release Date: February 17th, 2017
Distributor: Universal Pictures, China Film Group
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Zhang Hanyu, and Lu Han
Every once and awhile, if there's a weekday evening where nothing's going on and my wife is working and it's just me and the dog, I'll take a peak at the local Redbox rentals or Netflix genre movies and see what's going on in the world of B-cinema. I'm a sucker for action/adventure/sci-fi/fantasy films, and so I've spent a buck or two on evening rentals of past flops like Vin Diesel's The Last Witch Hunter, or Seventh Son. You know: garbage that might still be fun, but isn't worth the full price of admission at an actual theater. I think the Chinese blockbuster The Great Wall easily fits into that category. Watchable, but not good.
The movie starts off with an awful overhead shot of China, which zooms in on one of the most poorly-CGI'd openings I've ever seen as the camera follows the length of a grayish and uninspired Great Wall. There's also some opening text giving us a little bit of historical "context" and background (and as I've previously discussed, opening text in a film is almost always a bad sign). The film itself takes place in the early 11th century (a fact I had to look up online), with Matt Damon's character William and his companion Tovar making their way from Europe to China in order to barter for the mysterious "black powder" that can turn air into fire. Along the way all of their companions are whittled down by roving bands and, during one evening, a mysterious monster that William kills. As the two companions continue their escape from the riders hunting them, they finally come across the Great Wall of China, being manned by hundreds of brightly color soldiers in the most ridiculous armor I've ever seen.
This might be a good time to explain my then violent removal from any suspension of disbelief. If you watched the opening few minutes, you'd think you stumbled into a modern historical adventure. The armor, weapons, clothing, and materials that William and his companions wear look "accurate" enough, or at least enough to convince an audience of the conceit that, sure, Matt Damon and his friends are supposed to be from some Medieval European country. But the minute William and Tovar come upon the wall, we are shown a massive legion of brightly-colored warriors wearing the most clean, stylized, form-fitted, almost super-hero-plastic armor ever designed. And the Chinese soldiers are always clean. Even after William and Tovar wash and shave, they still appear as digusting barbarians in their dirty and gritty leather armor. Somehow these massive legions on the wall are dressed in the most ludicrous and impractial clothing imaginable. I know that China was technologically advanced compare to Europe for centuries, but I didn't know they had mastered dyed plastic.
Anyway, the force on the wall capture William and Tovar as prisoners, question them about the monster they killed, and tie them up just as the first attack begins. As it turns out, this legion, "The Nameless Order," is tasked to protect China from a threat known as the tao tei. These giant green lizard-dog monsters have massive jaws, bizarre designs on their heads, and eyes on their shoulders. Every 60 years they emerge to attack the wall in an attempt to overrun it and devour the inhabitants. The Nameless Order is split by color into various squadrons that specialize in different means of killing these monsters, such as archers and infantry. One special squadron, the blue Crane Troop, is led by Commander Lin, the only woman commander who catches William's eye and his respect. Which is odd, because the Crane Troop is one of the dumbest military operations imaginable. These women tie metal hoops attached to ropes around their waists and, using a spear as a weapon, bungie-jump off the wall to stab at the tao tei below. Obviously the monsters start grabbing them out of mid-air, and we're given a shot of dozens of bloodied hoops being piled back on top of the wall to show us how many were killed. If I bungie-jumped into a pride of lions with nothing but a pointy stick, I don't think I'd come back alive again either.
The conflict of the film then becomes about whether or not William and Tovar stay to help, or if they'll escape aided by Willem Defoe (another European trapped there for years). William decides to stay and fight, but Tovar and Willem escape with the powder, leading to a ludicrous sub-plot where they try to make their way through the desert and that leads no where and has no purpose.
The film is bizarre in its use of reality vs. fantasy. The first few minutes make it look like it could be a period adventure piece that includes monsters, but the minute the Chinese military arrives, it becomes half brightly-colored wuxia film, half gritty historical action, and the two just don't mesh here. I'm sure I could spend time analyzing the representation of East vs West in this film and what exactly China is trying to say about the West, but it's already making my head hurt thinking about it. There's also a ridiculous moment with "hot air balloons" and a scene where a character's death is excessively mourned as if we should know or care who he is (spoiler alert: we don't). But this review is already getting way too long for a film that's not worth it, so let's cut to the chase here.
The Great Wall is not an awful movie, and that's its biggest fault. If it were truly horrendous, it could have gone down as one of the greatest "bad films" of all-time, on the level of other bloated foreign-made travesties like South Korea's Dragon Wars: D-War. But it's not that bad. It's just silly and ridiculous, barely terrible enough to warrant a Rifftrax riffing.
And actually, the film has a lot of good things going for it. Matt Damon knows how to play the lead, even if he's out of place, and his character's moral arc is the only ounce of actual character development in the film. Damon and his costar Pedro Pascal have great chemistry, even if their banter can be formulaic. The costuming, despite being thematically inconsistent, is fantastic. One of the final action set-pieces takes place in a tower that's almost completely incased in stained glass, offering some unique visuals. (Also: Max Brooks is one of the credited story creators?) And the vicious tao tei are intriguingly designed despite the over-saturation of poor CGI. Speaking of which, the CGI is terrible. There are scenes later in the movie filmed in the same desert that the movie started in, but instead of taking more shots in the same location, they made am obvious computer-generated backdrop. That's just lazy. The few bright spots the film has are not enough to turn this into anything more than a bloated and forgettable blockbuster.
So if your interests align with mine, then wait for this to pop up on a streaming service or Redbox or something. Films like this are like candy: sometimes you're craving it, and when you're younger you could probably consume tons, but as you get older you realize it's not that filling and doesn't really leave you with anything nourishing. I have a feeling that in a couple of weeks I probably won't even think about this movie, and it'll probably fall into the pit of obscurity into which all other mediocre action-fantasy films descend.