THE GREAT WALL (4.5 out of 10) Directed by Zhang Yimou; Screenplay by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, Story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz; Starring Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang; Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence; Running time 103 minutes; In wide release February 17, 2017.
Fans of director Zhang Yimou's stylized martial arts and character drama will be sorely disappointed in this mediocre blockbuster that feels more like watered down Michael Bay and John Woo. While not as bad as some of its critics are suggesting (we'll get to the "White Savior" controversy in a minute), there just isn't anything here that is new or unique -- mostly due to a boring, weak script that reeks of Hollywood's best assembly-line script-by-committee approach.
So in this tale of East meets West. . . the West kind of ruins it for the East.
Which is too bad, as the story has potential. William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are mercenaries searching for Chinese black powder weapons to take back to Europe. After encountering an unknown beast in the wilderness, they stumble upon a heavily-fortified portion of China's Great Wall. There to defend against the threat of the Taotie -- mythical gluttonous monsters that rise every sixty years -- are the Nameless Order.
Armed with amazing weapons and great skill, the film's best parts come from some of the battle sequences that highlight their fighting skills-- including an all-female "Crane Troop" who dive off the wall armed with lances in a sort of 12th century version of bungee jumping. Damon's character also has amazing skills, especially with a bow, which provide some thrilling moments as well.
If only Damon's accent was as accurate as his archery. It's impossible to pin down exactly where "William" is supposed to be from, but we can only assume it's Liverpool-Dublin-Manchester-Edinburgh-Cornwall-Cardiff-Boston. It's one of the most distracting parts of the film and makes it hard to take seriously. The Chinese actors, on the other hand, are spot on and perform admirably.
One of the biggest controversies about this film has been an issue of whether Damon's character is a White Savior. The answer, succinctly, is no. Rather, this reeks of pro-Chinese propaganda and misguided Hollywood hippy dippy new age fascination with how superior Eastern philosophy and way of life is. Evil Western Mercenaries come seeking war, glory and money by stealing from the clever, honorable Chinese and end up having their savage ways civilized by learning the true meaning of honor.
See, they're not the one's who've been teaching Radio - Radio's the one who's been teaching them.
So this isn't offensive for the reason some critics have said. But it is incredibly trite-- and offensive -- in others, mostly in the aesthetic, not social justice, sense.
But, that being said, the battle scenes are pretty cool. One scene fought in a thick fog with mere feet of visibility is tense as you can't see attacks until they're right on top of you. They also use 3D to great, although eventually gimmicky and somewhat grating, effect. This is not on the same level of greatness as Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but there are some brief moments of greatness.
Unfortunately, they're marred by schlocky, predictable elements. Max Brooks is given a script credit here, and so, of course, our monsters act like World War Z zombies-- why, exactly? And, of course, there's a queen-- kill her and the rest of them die because of course they do-- this is that kind of dumb movie.
Zhang Yimou is capable of so much more. While it's good to see Chinese cinema meet Hollywood, let's hope future ventures like this are simply better than this mostly predictable action movie.
4.5 out of 10
Tags: Matt Damon