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Not So Great Movie

Matt Damon
Matt Damon
Universal Pictures
 103 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal
The Great Wall

If you see enough movies, you learn something new about history all the time. For example, I used to think that the Great Wall of China was built to keep out invading Mongols and other nomadic tribes. But, after seeing, The Great Wall, Zhang Yimou’s often visually stunning and dramatically inert saga, I now realize that its purpose was to repel, with the help of Matt Damon, hundreds of monsters that resembled a cross between the Hound of the Baskervilles and the creature from Alien. And the more cynical part of me wonders if the movie wasn’t somehow designed by Jimmy Kimmel as one enormously humiliating way to put one over on his “nemesis,” Damon. If so, Kimmel has succeeded masterfully.


The Great Wall seems to be set around the time of Marco Polo’s journeys, although it’s impossible to gauge the time period precisely. China has developed black powder as a weapon, a fact that a few Western mercenaries led by Gerin (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) know. They travel to China to bring the powder back to the West, only to have their numbers gradually decimated, first by bandits, and finally by one of the monsters. Finally, the two of them arrive at the wall and are taken prisoner, right before the monsters launch an attack.


After the attack barely fails, thanks in part to Garin’s timely intervention, the general in charge of the defending forces (Zhang Hanyu) informs Garin and Tovar that the creatures are called Tao Teis, and they emerge from a hole in the earth every 60 years to attack, thus leading to the construction of the Great Wall. Although the creatures have become increasingly clever and deadly over the years, they have two weaknesses, both very familiar to fans of science fiction and comic book lore. First, as Garin figures out, they become strangely docile in the presence of a magnet, much the same as Superman does when exposed to kryptonite. And, second, like dozens of other monster hordes in science fiction and fantasy films, killing the monster queen (like Sauron in Lord of the Rings or the boss bad guy in TV’s Falling Skies) puts an end to the threat. The only problem is getting close enough to get a clear shot at the queen, who is always surrounded by lots of flunkies.


A lot of thinking and a number of references to Chinese culture and mythology went into the backstory behind The Great Wall, enough to make a fascinating action/adventure film. The defensive forces actually comprise five separate armies, each known for its own fighting skills. The most spectacular of these are a group of female bungee jumpers, who leap off the wall, get low enough to slice up one of the Tao Teis climbing the wall, and then get rubber banded up to safety. But, other than that one stunt, viewers will be hard pressed to differentiate the swordplay and archery involved in The Great Wall from that in any other period piece.


The main culprit, or, more accurately, culprits in this regard are the Tao Teis themselves. They are scary looking, with lots and lots of razor sharp teeth, but, in the year 2017, traditional monstrous creatures have lost whatever ability they once had to amaze and frighten. Instead, they become a distraction, taking away from any possible appreciation of the director’s artistry. For, when Yimou focuses on his human combatants, the costuming and choreography of their moves is sometimes dazzling (he makes a couple of dozen soldiers pounding on war drums into sheer artistry). But once the action turns into man vs. monster, on a battlefield in which the joinder of human actors in the foreground and green screen CGI creatures on a backdrop is obvious to the naked eye, the air goes out of the film like a rapidly deflating balloon.


Viewers probably don’t expect a film like The Great Wall to have much in the way of character development, and, in this case they would be right. The cast is almost exclusively Chinese, but, the script was cobbled together by a group of prominent Occidentals, including Edward Zwick, Marshall Herkowitz, and Tony Gilroy. Despite their unquestioned screenwriting skills, they have come up with a generic story that could have been cranked out by someone from Michael Bay’s stable. Only two Chinese characters make any impression, the female captain (Jing Tian), who eventually assumes command of the defenses, and a young soldier (former boy band singer Lu Han) somewhat lacking in soldierly techniques. Instead, the script, perhaps guessing that money-paying American audiences would rather see more of Matt Damon, emphasizes Garin’s hot/cold bromance with Tovar, and the machinations of a third Westerner, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who has been a prisoner of the Chinese for a couple of decades. The film would have been much more entertaining with Jimmy Kimmel in either the Tovar or Ballard roles.


Yimou and his team of screenwriters had the makings of a good movie in The Great Wall but they squandered it by their insistence on turning it into a medieval version of Godzilla or Pacific Rim. Leaving aside the relatively bad CGI (for this expensive a project) and, indeed, the very idea of the Tao Tei (if they are supposed to be dragons, why not make them at least look like traditional Chinese dragons), the film has a major flaw. Namely, the monsters are too powerful to be defeated with the technology available (heck, we have a tough time beating Godzilla in the 21st century). The “destroy the alien queen gimmick” elucidated far too many groans at the showing I saw the very moment it was mentioned.


In fact, with the success of current projects like Vikings, why not have the Chinese on the walls defending themselves from a horde of powerful but very human attackers? In such a battle, Yimou could put all his wizardry to good use in choreographing some stunning battle scenes. As it is, that skill is on display here and there, in bits and pieces, for the most part just enough to whet the appetite for more combat that we never see. Instead, The Great Wall is, at times, actually an inferior knockoff of some of the monster films we see every summer. The budget for The Great Wall was reportedly $150 million. With that amount of money at stake, someone should have thought the central concept through a bit more closely before going ahead with the project. Instead, the result seems destined to be The Great Money Pit of 2017.    

In this scene, Matt Damon tries to lead some troops past the monsters.

Read other reviews of The Great Wall:


The Great Wall (2016) on IMDb