Movie Review: ‘The Great Wall’
Sometimes a film’s title is a grabby question, like What About Bob? or Dude, Where’s My Car? Sometimes a title is a nuanced, poignant statement, like There Will Be Blood, Don’t Breathe or Drag Me to Hell. But sometimes filmmakers just call a spade a spade and aim for the nose. Such is certainly the case with Matt Damon’s new international offering, The Great Wall.
The Oscar-winner plays a dodgy mercenary named William who, alongside his Spanish pal Tovar (Pedro Pascal), is desperate to get his hands on “black powder” during the Song dynasty. Yes, that means gunpowder, an innovation of the Chinese. While hiding out north of the Great Wall, William and Tovar fight a large animal that is hunting them. They slay the creature and take its reptilian claw with them, planning to get answers. In no time, they are captured by an enormous, colorful army guarding the wall who are convinced their souvenir means battle is imminent.
What follows is an epic clash between a military force called the Nameless Order and a horde of strikingly-intelligent beasts called the Taotie. The Chinese army has countless surprises to sling at their terrifying toothy attackers including catapults, giant crossbows and tethered female soldiers who dive from platforms with spears and fight mid-air. Among them is Commander Lin (Jing Tian), who sees potential in William when he single-handedly fights off a Taotie that reached the top of the wall.
Yes, this is indeed one of the more recent films that has caught the ire of Hollywood pundits for casting a white American to star in a film about a fantastical fight on the Great Wall. Unlike Ghost in the Shell or Doctor Strange, this isn’t a project in which a white A-lister beat out Asian actors for an Asian role. His character is a foreigner. But if you’re still perturbed, consider the financial side of making action films on this scale. In this case, that’s a $150 million price tag. Whether it’s misguided or not, Damon’s participation is a business decision designed to open up the appeal of this actioner.
However, if you’re going to see Damon, you’re doomed to disappointment. His performance is often flat and uncomfortable due in large part to a tin-eared script and poor direction. After all, we all know he can act. If you are considering giving this film a try, do it on the merits of the special effects wizardry that have been employed. The opening battle scene is a dazzling ballet of carnage. The sweeping images of the world-famous wall manned by brightly-dressed soldiers waging war is truly impressive.
In fact, although William and Commander Lin debating the ethics of risking life and limb as ravenous creatures converge on them is often the focus, the real star of the production is the wall itself. The film always seems to find its coordinates again when viewers are treated to another glimpse of the structure winding its way into the misty horizon.
Is the dialogue ridiculous? You bet. Are the characters as thin as seaweed? Absolutely. Is the action breath-taking? Darn tootin’. This thing is about great action on and around one of mankind’s most staggering creations. After all, it’s called The Great Wall. What more did you expect?
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