The Great Wall: Fun to See But Forgettable

The Great Wall is great – as in big – with star-power (Matt Damon and Jing Tian), firepower (it’s directed by Zhang Yimou, who brought us Hero and House of Flying Daggers), and visual force (it’s in 3D/IMAX). It’s also the most expensive Chinese film ever made.

But is the movie great – as in good? I’ll get to that in a sec.

The Great Wall

2016, PG-13

First thing’s first. Even though there are creepy creatures, sword fights, and a touch of humor, the movie is bilingual – which means there are lots of subtitles. It’s centered on adults; there are no child-characters, perhaps making it harder for youngsters to connect to the story and action. But it’s not too scary (rated PG-13) and the monsters are all fairly cartoony-looking in spite of having multiple eyes, razor-teeth, and goopy green blood.

This epic fantasy-adventure follows William (Damon), a medieval mercenary who is in Song Dynasty China on a quest to find gunpowder which he plans to bring back to the West. This supernatural substance “turns air into fire” and is sure to revolutionize warfare. As he searches, along with his wisecracking sidekick Tovar (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal), William is attacked out of nowhere by a colossal beast. He quickly kills it, which in due time leads him to an unexpected fate: fighting hordes of the legendary Tao Tie. These are ferocious animals who emerge once every 60 years to dine on the locals. Though foreigners, William and Tovar aren’t immune: They have no choice… it’s fight or die.

William and Tovar arouse suspicion after news of their exploits reach the Nameless Order, the squad trained to the fight the Tao Tie. The Nameless ones can’t believe that a foreigner could so quickly best their beast, and so they bring the men up to stand before the Council to explain how they killed the marauding monster with such ease. Their answer is not accepted – and they are taken prisoner. While in the dungeon, they meet another westerner. His name is Ballard (Willem Dafoe) and he seems to know an awful lot… can he be trusted, or not? Whatever the case, William and Tovar get a chance to prove their mettle and are eventually unshackled and allowed to join the fray.

After the western mercenaries hook up with the Chinese military and are isolated atop the gigantic stone fortress behind the Wall, we get to see some martial arts… sort of. Zhang’s trademark elegantly choreographed battles, real stunt work, and authentic locations are marred by the egregious overuse of CGI and over-eager editing. There are some death-defying acrobatics, impressive flying battle axes and other weaponry, plus the menacing monsters themselves. Though the Tao Tie are indeed vicious, bloodthirsty beasts, there is no actual blood (except for their own green-goo, as previously noted). William strikes up an alliance and mild flirtation with the beautiful, no-nonsense Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian). Their chemistry is tepid at best. Not that kids will really mind whether or not the onscreen almost-romance is believable, but I think the little ones are pretty perceptive and if they don’t buy into the relationships of the characters then they won’t feel there is as much at stake.

What’s more, the logic seems a bit off. It turns out the reason William was able to subdue the Tao Tie he killed early in the story, was because he was carrying a magnetic stone. Everyone marvels over the rarity of this rock and how it will revolutionize travel by acting as a compass. In reality, Chinese civilization first made compasses from magnetic stones in the Han dynasty (AD100). By the timepoint of the movie (between AD960 and AD1127), the compass had been widely used in navigation and wouldn’t have been such a huge revelation. But the kids probably won't care about that.

The screenplay is credited to six writers including Max Brooks, Tony Gilroy and Edward Zwick, which explains why there isn’t a strong voice – then again, it’s right in line with the Eastern philosophy that teamwork by a cohesive unit will always win the day. Still, The Great Wall comes across more like an extravaganza cartoon than a bona fide feature film. (Actually, there are even a few simply-animated sequences, which are there in order to tell the Tao Tie’s backstory.) Except for a few obligatory character beats, the flick focuses firmly on the Nameless Order, led by the extravagantly-armored General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and Commander Lin Mae, as they do spectacular battle and pull out all the stops, including massive spiked-iron fireballs coming right at-ya in 3D.

Overall, The Great Wall is an action-packed adventure kids will probably want to see… but will quickly forget.

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