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Dan's Review: "The Great Wall" closer to mediocre

Feb 18, 2017 12:18AM ● Published by Dan Metcalf

Matt Damon in The Great Wall - © 2017 – Universal.

The Great Wall (Universal)

Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence.

Starring Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng, Lu Han, Lin Gengxin, Chen Xuedong, Huang Xuan, Wang Junkai, Ryan Zheng, Zhu Zhu, Yu Xintian, Liu Qiong.

Written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz.

Directed by Zhang Yimou.

GRADE: B-

REVIEW:

Matt…Damon. He will save the world, or at least an ancient Chinese dynasty from a horde of aliens. That’s the premise of The Great Wall, a fantasy film based on a legend in and around the Great Wall of China, starring Damon as a European trader/mercenary thrust into battle.

Damon plays William, a career soldier-for-hire seeking fortune in China along with other travelers who hope to trade for black powder. Most of the group is killed by mysterious beasts except for William and his friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal). William manages to kill one of the beasts, chopping off its paw. The pair seeks refuge at the Great Wall, where legions of soldiers of the “Nameless Order” keep watch in preparation for a coming invasion from the ravenous creatures. The order is led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and his beautiful commander Lin (Jing Tian), who capture the two Europeans, planning to execute them. At the same time, the horde of alien “Taotie” creatures attack, as William and Tovar prove their worth in battle. William begins to sympathize with the plight of the order, and helps them capture one of the beasts, so they can analyze the aliens’ weaknesses and develop a strategy for defeating them. Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another European captured by the order years before, convinces Tovar and William to escape during the next Taotie attack, taking all the black powder they can carry. William has second thoughts after he learns that the Taotie will not stop until they devour the entire world, not just China.  Tovar and Ballard manage to escape, but run into trouble when the Taotie tunnel under the wall and begin an assault on the Chinese capitol. Using hot air balloons, Lin, William and the order fly to the capitol to rescue the emperor and devise a plan to defeat the Taotie once and for all.

Admittedly, I was very skeptical of the premise behind The Great Wall. It seemed like a strange idea with an equally strange casting decision for a movie about an ancient Chinese legend, produced and directed by Chinese filmmakers. Matt Damon never seems like a comfortable fit among the rest of the almost entirely Chinese cast. Even so, there were plenty of decent action scenes with more than adequate special effects and a few humorous moments I didn’t expect.

Despite these surprises, The Great Wall has plenty of flaws, including a disjointed story with significant plot holes and pacing issues. There are a lot of unexplained series of events and a suspect backstory rooted in the actual Great Wall itself that doesn’t quite reconcile with any kind of fantasy or science fiction genre. It’s as if Peter Jackson had produced a remake of Starship Troopers. You can’t quite peg where the movie is coming from, and that’s a universal flaw, no matter your culture.

Then, there’s Damon, who falls into the “Great White Hope” role of an Anglo/European riding in to lead the tribal folks to victory against incredible odds. Yep, we’ve seen that before many times, and it appears to be a strategic move by the Chinese production company to try and appeal to audiences on both continents. I’m not sure it will work in the U.S., but The Great Wall has already raked in more than $225 million in China.

All strategy aside, The Great Wall isn’t that great of a movie, but it’s at least slightly better than mediocre.


The Great Wall Trailer

Today, Arts+Entertainment movies movie reviews Fantasy China
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