'The Great Wall'
With China now the second largest market for Hollywood blockbusters and the country’s own industry cranking out massive spectacles that tend to be huge hits everywhere other than North America, it was only a matter of time before we got a grand Chinese/Hollywood co-production. Now it’s here, it’s called ‘The Great Wall’, and it’s a great big dopey monster mash with confused movie stars, tiresome plotting, and some absolutely gorgeous spectacle of medieval armies fighting off massive waves of green CGI dragons.
This is most certainly not a great film, and whenever humans are speaking to each other not even a particularly good one. However, when it comes time to monster mash, Zhang Yimou finds plenty of beauty in the scaly carnage and the movie practically starts to smell like buttered popcorn.
Matt Damon stars as William, some sort of wandering warrior with an unclear background. He’s traveling with his best bud, Tovar (Pedro Pascal), whom he met somewhere along the way. Together, they’re in search of a mythical black powder that goes boom. One night shortly after being introduced, they encounter a beast that sticks around long enough for William to chop its claw off. Eventually, the pair are found by members of a Chinese army and taken to the Great Wall (see title), where they meet the general (Hanyu Zhang), commander (Jing Tian) and strategist (Andy Lau) of a 100,000 soldier army. They learn that the severed claw belongs to a species of dragon-like monsters that openly symbolize human greed and attack every 60 years (which was ooooobviously why the wall was built). The monsters are commanded by a queen and… yadda yadda yadda, the beasts must be stopped!
As you may have gathered, ‘The Great Wall’ is a rather unapologetic B-movie with only the flimsiest of fairy tale morals about the importance of cross-cultural bonding and the perils of greed. For the most part, any sort of thematic concerns take a back seat to pure spectacle, which director Zhang Yimou helms with a mix of the visually poetic action he brought to films like ‘Hero’ or ‘House of Flying Daggers’, with pure genre goofiness.
The spectacle is genuinely stunning. Zhang paints in broad strokes and gloriously vibrant colors. Highlights include a troop of balletic bungee-jumping women warriors, a hypnotic hot air balloon ride, a tense sequence involving whistling arrows, and a kaleidoscopic finale that’s a feast for the eyes. It’s all gorgeously crafted, breathtakingly massive, and gloriously stupid. Zhang gives this schlock a painterly touch and even makes both artistic and delightfully gimmicky use of 3D to make his assault on audience’s eye-sockets that much more direct.
The good news is that the bulk of this movie’s relatively trim running time is dedicated purely to the pretty, explosive spectacle. The bad news is that every sequence that doesn’t involve massive CGI monster fights is perfunctory at best and downright irritating at worst. The script, written by a trio of Americans (including ‘Bourne’ series staple Tony Gilroy), features awkward dialogue that sounds like it’s been poorly translated and reduced to naked exposition with vocalized themes.
The cast do little more than pose in the pretty frames. Damon feels particularly out of place and commits to a terrible accent that can only be described as Irish-ish. (The less said about Willem Dafoe’s involvement the better, since neither he nor the filmmakers seem particularly interested in his presence.) Just about everything in the movie feels awkward other than the expensive monster fighting material. However, if anything, that just makes ‘The Great Wall’ feel even more like the great monster movies of yore.
The film’s perfunctory dramatics have an element of accidental camp that adds an extra bit of entertainment value to the proceedings that are mercifully devoid of irony. This is an old-fashioned monster movie made with contemporary technology and shot through the eyes of a genuine artist. The fact that it’s completely unpretentious is part of the fun. The minor controversy regarding the token white movie star headlining an Asian blockbuster has been overstated. This is how international productions work, and the movie in no way downplays the power of the Asian characters in favor of Damon’s master archer. It’s a delightful romp even if Damon gives one of his weakest performances. In fact, that just adds to the entertainment value of this massively expensive and oddly classy schlock.
Anyone expecting art beyond the surface pleasures is certain to be disappointed, but for those who enjoy old monster movies and gorgeously constructed spectacle, The Great Wall serves up plenty of the good stuff. It’s kind of like last year’s ‘Warcraft’ with most of the unwatchable bits removed, a more artistically accomplished production, and ever-so-slightly hokier effects (in a great way). It ain’t art, but it’s a great time for those who love good dumb fun, gorgeous craftsmanship and giggling at blockbuster excess. No more, no less.