Fan­tas­ti­cal film looks good, but story falls short

The Dallas Morning News - - INSIDE - By CLARENCE TSUI The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter

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

dig­i­tal py­rotech­nics.

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.

Leg­endary Pic­tures and Universal Pic­tures

In The Great Wall, a mas­sive bat­tle is waged to stop para­nor­mal beasts from in­vad­ing China.

Jasin Boland

Matt Da­mon stars as mer­ce­nary Wil­liam Garin.

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