“The Great Wall” is poised to take a great fall, creating the kind of mess not seen since Humpty Dumpty sat on a similar structure. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men (and there are a lot of them here) won’t be able to put this snore of a movie together again.
Starring Matt Damon, the veteran Andy Lau and a host of Chinese stars and directed by the esteemed Zhang Yimou, “The Great Wall” was supposed to be a game-changer, proof that the burgeoning Chinese film industry could make a blockbuster that would be successful on Western screens. Not this time.
As the presence of gifted actors like Damon and Lau, not to mention a budget estimated to be in the $150-million range testify, this misbegotten movie, the largest ever shot entirely in China, didn’t happen because things were done on the cheap.
Rather “The Great Wall” is a failure of the imagination, a reliance on a god-awful core idea of a fight to the death against supernatural monsters in ancient China and a narrative where each moment is more preposterous than the last, each plot point flimsier than the one that came before. If ever a film was made with more money than sense, this is it.
The originating intelligence here is likely Max Brooks, who has the first story-credit position and whose background as the creator of “World War Z” jibes with the fact that “The Great Wall” is basically a swarming zombie story set in northern China around AD 1100, with mythological creatures called the Tao Tei standing in for the legions of the undead.
Before we meet these glum creatures we are introduced to a group of Europeans fleeing roving bandits in China’s vast outback. Top dog is the hardened mercenary William Garin (Damon) and his battle-scarred Spanish buddy Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal). They are in country hoping to pilfer gunpowder, a.k.a. “the weapon of our dreams,” and sell it to the highest bidder back home in Europe where the destructive substance is as yet unknown.
Gigantic as the Great Wall of China most definitely is, big enough to be seen from outer space, its existence somehow comes as a shock to these two when they literally stumble on it while on the run. And more shocks are very much in store.
Inside the structure is the Nameless Order, an army so huge it is broken up into nifty color-coded regiments. The archers wear red, the cavalrymen don purple, the combat soldiers make do with black, and then there are the all female Cranes, dressed in blue as they do elaborate swan dives into battle. Really.
All this is a reminder that director Zhang, despite his start with thoughtful films such as “Red Sorghum” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” has devolved into a director known (witness his work on the opening and closing Beijing Olympic ceremonies) for spectacle more than anything else.
Add to that the fact that “The Great Wall’s” dialogue, in a bow to the realities of the international marketplace, is mostly in English and you get negligible emotional connection here, a situation that hampers Damon and Willem Dafoe, who plays a random European skulking around the fortress, most of all.
In charge of the Nameless Order is a very capable group of Chinese. Aside from Lau as Strategist Wang, there is Gen. Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and the redoubtable Commander Lin (the quietly effective Jing Tian), the head of the photogenic but deadly Crane Corps.
Garin’s skill with a crossbow comes in handy, but because this is a Chinese film he is presented as simply one of many heroes and someone who has a lot to learn (mostly from Commander Lin) about the importance of fighting for a cause not yourself.
The first thing Garin learns, however, is why all those soldiers are stationed on the wall in the first place. Preposterous as it sounds, they’re there to combat the velociraptor-type Tao Tei, a heaven-sent scourge who appear like clockwork every 60 years to do their worst.
All teeth and nasty attitude, the Tao Tei are, despite the best efforts of hoards of visual-effects technicians, more tedious than anything else, and presenting them in clumsy 3-D simply makes things worse.
Despite all the work that went into it (13,140 costume pieces! More than 20,000 props including over 1,000 pieces of pottery for one banquet alone!) “The Great Wall” is not worth anyone’s time.
Commander Lin isn’t referring to the film when she says at one point, “It would be better if you had never seen it,” but it sure feels like she is.
MPAA rating PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. In general release.
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