Movie Review: ‘THE GREAT WALL’ – Mongolian Beefcake

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

THE GREAT WALL | 1h 43min |PG-13
Directed by: Yimou Zhang
Starring: Matt DamonTian JingWillem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang

As stated in the opening crawl, it took 1700 years to build the great wall of China, stretching for 5,500 miles. It’s one of the seven wonders of the world. Director Zhang Yimou’s THE GREAT WALL, however, is not. The movie that steals its moniker makes it look like far less of a wonder, and more like a generic location for which underdeveloped characters and ropey CGI come to play.

Rugged Irishman William (Matt Damon, sporting an accent that’s a cross between Irish and when black comedians imitate white guys) and Spaniard Tovar (Pedro Pascal, who says every line like it should end in, “Stay thirsty, my friends!”) are traders fleeing an ambush when they happen upon the Great Wall – the stronghold of the soldiers of the Nameless Order under the command of General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing). They are taken in as prisoners right before a siege of mythical giant lizard-like creatures called “Tao Tei” descend, picking off soldiers like they are eating at your local Great Wall Chinese Food buffet. It’s then that William and Tovar prove they are more valuable as fighters than prisoners. Commander Lin, along with her head of strategy, Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), enlist William and Tovar to help fight, as the Tao Tei are getting smarter about breaching the wall. But the new recruits have ulterior motives for being there – ones that involve a cache of black powder.

Sad to say, there’s virtually no artistry exhibited by anyone involved here. This pains me as Yimou’s previous works – like HERO, HOUSE OF THE FLYING DAGGERS and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER – are incandescent. Here, he sublimates his talents in order to churn out something of a cash grab. The CGI on the monsters is unwieldy and ugly. Not even murky 3-D glasses can cover it up. Mayes C. Rubeo’s intricately crafted costume design pops against the landscape of blasé, but does mimeograph the Power Rangers color wheel.

Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal in THE GREAT WALL. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Tangibly missing is the all the fun this could have been. Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay never give us characters to dig into and really care about. We’re tossed into a world where we’re never shown why we should care if William and Tovar succeed or fail in their quest. They provide mostly all of the levity in the proceedings, but that’s not enough to get us to care about their quest. There are virtually no personal stakes for these characters. Anything resembling character development is quickly dispensed through dialogue and never referred to again. One wooden chat at dinner between William and Commander Lin doesn’t pass for laying the groundwork for emotional stakes. The filmmakers try to connect their journeys, but fail miserably. He needs to learn how to trust people, but what’s her problem that needs solving? When they loop back around to this at the end, you expect to see Damon and Tian break the fourth wall and wink at the camera, freeze-framed as the credits roll. Fellow Wall hostage Ballard’s (William Dafoe) role is pointless. Plus, there’s no logic behind the Tao Tei’s movements. Why do they keep attacking the same part of the wall instead of moving to another part where it’s not populated with soldiers?

There’s also a lot of white savior-ing happening – so much so, you wonder how the Chinese allowed this to pass go as it paints them in a bad light. William’s ingenuity saves their butts time and time again. You wonder how they survived up until that point. It’s no wonder this eagerness to capitalize on the Chinese movie market backfired on the filmmakers. This was birthed from a place of from wrong-headedness – and it shows.

THE GREAT WALL opens on February 17.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.