Fantastical film looks good, but story falls short
The Great Wall and Fist Fight lead this week’s lineup of reviews.
The Great Wall has long been talked up as a landmark of sorts: It’s Matt Damon’s first foray into China, Zhang Yimou’s first predominantly English-language production and the first film to come out of Legendary Pictures’ continent-hopping strategy. The result, however, is much less exciting than all the hype might have suggested.
Beyond the casting and the ceaseless onslaught of diverse special effects, Zhang and his Hollywood screenwriters have delivered a formulaic monster movie — albeit one transposed to a historically undefined China where generals already have mastered anesthetics, air travel and American-accented English.
Telling the fantastical story of a massive battle waged to stop paranormal beasts from invading China, The Great
Wall is easily the least interesting and involving blockbuster of the respective careers of both its director and star. Still, Damon has certainly lent the whole enterprise a certain pedigree, and his presence (alongside Willem Dafoe and Chinese A-listers Andy Lau and Zhang Hanyu) should propel the film to box-office success in China. For the international market, however, the film perhaps would best be positioned as a novelty for monster-flick fanboys or those interested in Zhang’s brand of cultural exotica.
The protagonist here is one William Garin (Damon), who, while fleeing from
the “hill tribes” in northern China, gets himself and his fellow mercenary Tovar (Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones) captured by a military garrison at an outpost along the Great Wall. The pair’s lives are spared when William proffers a giant paw he chopped off from a beast that attacked him and Tovar in the steppes.
The monster, they are told, is a Taotie, a deadly lizardlike paranormal species that long has been trying to invade China. These monsters, it is revealed, are actually why the Great Wall was built — and William and Tovar are soon given a glimpse of why in a high-octane battle sequence rendered a true spectacle by Industrial Light & Magic’s state-of-the-art
Having saved a soldier in the battle and showcased his archery skills, William is welcomed into the life of the garrison. Initially bent on getting what he wants — some mysterious gunpowder that will earn him a fortune back home — his conscience is soon awakened (this is Matt Damon, after all), and his head turned by Lin (Jing Tian of Special ID), the only female and English-speaking commander at the outpost.
It’s hardly a surprise that William chooses to stay even after Tovar — egged on by Ballard (Dafoe), who has been in detention at the camp for 25 years, teaching English to Lin and strategist Wang (Lau) in the process — plots to steal the treasure and leave. And while the “Westerners” are regularly shown up by the physically powerful and invariably principled Chinese warriors, it’s hardly a surprise who eventually gets to save the day.
There’s also a message, which Lin spells out when she lectures William about the importance of trust. The banality of this moral is representative of the weightlessness of nearly every aspect of the film: The characters are ciphers, the narrative is dull and even the sights and sounds become numbingly bombastic after a while. Even Damon seems to be struggling with his dialogue, which is anachronistically peppered with modern vocabulary, humor (a handful of “I heard that!” jokes), and bromantic quips between William and Tovar.
And that’s not to mention the sheer lack of logic in the film: Why do the Taoties attack human beings only every 60 years? Why does the army host a “crane corps,” involving female soldiers bungee-jumping down the wall to lance the beasts, when there are already cannons and other artillery? And why is everybody rolling their r’s when they speak?
Then again, Zhang might have delivered exactly what was asked of him — a no-nonsense visual spectacle that stops at nothing in its portrayal of an imaginary, mysterious ancient culture. Or perhaps
The Great Wall is a safety-first exercise for Zhang, Damon and their financiers in consolidating their first moves outside their usual terrain; it may be a landmark film for the Chinese and U.S. film industries, but it’s hardly a creative breakthrough for anyone involved.
In The Great Wall, a massive battle is waged to stop paranormal beasts from invading China.
Matt Damon stars as mercenary William Garin.