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Movie Review: 'The Great Wall' Doesn't Stand Up to Scrutiny


Published February 22, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 28, 2017 at 11:07 p.m.

Remember back in December when I took up space in our year-in-review piece to go on about how the Chinese are buying up Hollywood? And how that country's richest man, Wang Jianlin, now owns Legendary Entertainment (among other studios), and how concerned I was that Communist Party restrictions would ultimately result in "movies ... increasingly tailored to Chinese tastes and to appeal to the party's self-image"? Well, that didn't take long. Here we are, just two months into the New Year, and everything predicted in that piece is already coming to pass.

Want proof? See The Great Wall. That may be the only reason to. Despite having been directed by towering filmmaking talent Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers), it is a work of jaw-dropping numbskull-itude, replete with Atari-caliber computer animation, generic Lethal Weapon-grade buddy-picture yuks and more nationalist propaganda than a Leni Riefenstahl marathon.

Matt Damon supplies the global marketing bait in this multi-genre mashup, which represents both Yimou's English-language debut and the actor's most perplexing career move since he signed on for We Bought a Zoo. He looked more at home in The Martian.

And, speaking of outer space (which one almost never does when discussing Yimou's oeuvre or ancient Mongolia), here's the premise of this coproduction from Universal Pictures and Legendary Entertainment: The Great Wall was actually built to protect the population from razor-toothed aliens. Having crashed to Earth on a meteor millennia earlier, thousands of these extraterrestrials launch an attack every 60 years like clockwork.

Damon plays William, a bow-wielding Irish mercenary who journeys to China accompanied by his sidekick, Tovar (Pedro Pascal), intending to steal the secret recipe for gunpowder. Instead, he winds up joining forces with the army guarding the wall. That gunpowder recipe may be the only formula not followed by the picture's six screenwriters. (One of them, insanely, happens to be Tony Gilroy, who scripted the good Bourne movies with Damon.) Naturally, the Westerners arrive just in time for an alien attack.

Over the past few years, Hollywood has adopted the rule that, to make a movie that appeals to a global market, you skip luxuries such as plausibility and character development and blow the budget on spectacle. Especially explosions, which translate nicely into any language. Think Red Cliff meets Gladiator, with CGI space creatures thrown in to cover every conceivable demographic, and you won't be far off from what we have here.

I thought this was funny: The army defending the wall is called the Nameless Order. That's a name, isn't it? It's led by the babelicious Gen. Lin Mae (Jing Tian). Once William has proved his courage and skill in combat against the green meanies, the two give in to their smoldering attraction and take things upstairs to her private command pagoda.

Just kidding. Not in a Chinese coproduction. Actually, the two express their ardor whenever a battle isn't raging by staring at each other like wooden statues of their characters. So it's pretty much staring, battle, staring, battle, rinse, repeat.

The message of The Great Wall isn't that people of dissimilar cultures may discover they have much in common, and even fall in love. Rather, the film seems to advance the idea that even greedy people from the West can be redeemed by adopting Chinese values (selflessness, discipline, sacrifice for the greater good). Ultimately, a handful of eye-popping Yimou flourishes can't compensate for filmmaking so line-toeing and occasionally cartoonish that it makes the idea of a wall between Hollywood and Chinese interests actually sound kinda great.