** out of ****
(for sequences of fantasy action violence)
Released: February 17, 2017
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau
When an original movie feels like it’s based on a video game, we’ve got problems – not just for the movie, but in a broader sense of what modern film language and aesthetic has become.
That’s the case with The Great Wall, a big budget collaboration between Hollywood and China that hopes to be the first movie of many to synergize the world’s two biggest markets as film production warriors. It’s fitting, then, that two of the central characters are mercenaries.
With famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou at the helm (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), there’s a lot of visual grandeur on display, but with flat characters, a thin narrative, and full CGI onslaught, The Great Wall is epically monotonous.
Matt Damon plays William, a Scottish warrior (pretty sure that’s the accent he’s using). He and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), a Spanish fighter, find themselves captive in 9th Century China. They’re on a quest for a famed “black powder”; this, we come to learn (or at least intuit), is gunpowder, a substance that wouldn’t be introduced to the West until centuries later.
The two are taken prisoner on China’s Great Wall. There, a legion of Chinese forces – color-coded according to regiment and gender (akin to ancient, ornate Power Rangers) – protect the empire on an outpost of its world wonder. Their fiercest enemies, however, aren’t human. Rather, it’s a horde of monsters that come charging like cockroaches every sixty years. China’s Great Wall is a defense against them, and the two captive foreigners have arrived on the eve of one of these attacks.
The story essentially cycles through various rounds of these battles, with perfunctory narrative padding in-between. Contrary to politically correct fears, The Great Wall is not some movie star whitewashing of foreign traditions and lore, or some form of White Savior Complex. Cultural appropriation is not among this film’s problems.
Its shortcomings, nevertheless, are still all-too-familiar. The Great Wall is yet another blockbuster in which its visual ambitions far outreach its narrative and thematic ones, diluted of any substance (or, for that matter, anything particularly compelling) in the attempt to be pleasing to every global demographic.
Character, story, dialogue; these fundamentals are not among the movie’s strong suits. Zhang Yimou settles for a clever premise on which he and his team can mount a sprawling spectacle of the sort he’s legendary for, and that they do, complete with some inspired methods of acrobatic combat. From sets to costumes, The Great Wall is lush, as are its aerial sweeps of the country’s colorful, grand terrain.
The visual rigor isn’t as accomplished when it comes to the monsters. Despite employing the latest, greatest special effects wizardry, the artistic implementation is rough. On the intangible line between real and fake, this film’s CGI falls on the wrong side of that great technological wall.
In a multiplex landscape starving for original high concepts rather than recycled franchises and pre-existing IPs, it’s particularly disappointing to see one like this come along and serve as yet another test case for why fresh ideas remain largely anathema to Hollywood.
Even with all of Zhang’s prowess as a period-action auteur, the sum of this movie’s parts feels extremely antiquated, more suited to Steven Segal than Matt Damon. The Great Wall plays like an impressive video game, but falls short of movie magic.