The Great Wall
Not so Great

We all like to say that filmmaking is about art and expression, but the truth is that, for the most part, moviemaking is about making money.  Lately, one of the easiest ways for the studios to make a lot of money is to make a movie that has mass appeal in China, a country with a large population that is ready to spend their money on big-budget blockbusters.  The new action fantasy The Great Wall may just be the most blatant attempt to capitalize on that financial gold mine.

A US-China co-production, the movie has a Chinese director and a mostly Chinese cast, but features an American movie star in the leading role.  Matt Damon plays William, a European mercenary in search of the mysterious black powder in the time of the Song dynasty and comes across the wall of the title.  He is taken prisoner in time to witness the soldiers guarding the wall to hold off an attack by an army of vicious alien monsters.  We soon learn that these monsters originate from a green meteorite that crash-landed about two thousand years ago and they attack the wall about every sixty years in search of food for their queen.  The wall is there to keep the monsters from reaching the capital city, where they could find enough food to rule the entire world.

After escaping his bonds and helping to save the life of one of the soldiers, William is welcomed by his captors as a guest.  After he discovers that the armies of the wall possess the black powder they have been seeking, William’s partner wants them to try to escape with it, but William has begun to empathize with the plight of the so-called Nameless Order guarding the wall.  As it turns out, William may have also discovered the secret to stopping the beasts they call the Taotie.

The Great Wall is directed by Zhang Yimou, arguably China’s most successful filmmaker.  After beginning mostly with historical dramas like To Live and Raise the Red Lantern, he moved more into the action fantasy realm with hits like Hero and House of the Flying Daggers. The Great Wall certainly falls into the latter category, but while those other movies felt more realistic in spite of the fantasy setting and wirework stunts, the new movie goes a little off the rails.

The movie opens by explaining that the events of the film are depicting one of the ancient legends as to the purpose of the wall.  It is a good thing that it lets us know up front that it is a legend,  because if this movie had tried to pass itself off as true or realistic—even if, for argument’s sake, the monsters were factual creatures—it would have fallen flat on its face.  The movie is often cartoonish, especially in a later action scene that has Damon and company fighting off the Taotie from a hot air balloon.  It is painfully clear throughout that all of the action was performed in a room surrounded by giant green screens.  But even for an admittedly cartoonish fantasy, The Great Wall comes off feeling really cheesy, especially its overuse of slow motion.

Admittedly, though, some of the visuals are quite stunning.  Yimou has always used vivid colors and this movie takes it to the extreme.  Each unit of the army guarding the wall is outfitted with different colored armor distinguishing their role in the wall’s defense.  Watching the various colors march in unison from post to post is quite fascinating visually.  And there is a sequence at the end of the film that looks as if it were filmed inside of a rainbow.  It is truly gorgeous, even if it does distract from the events of the film a little.

The effects are okay.  The Taotie look great up close, but when the camera pulls back to show a long shot of the hoard moving through the landscape, it seems a bit over-the-top.  The movie also takes every advantage to throw something at the audience in 3D.

The highlight of the film in terms of its action is the opening, Lord of the Rings-style fortress defense.  The downside to that is that the rest of the film’s action feels like a letdown.

That brings us to Matt Damon, an actor whom I have always liked and respect greatly, but who feels miscast here. It is probably the first time since he became a big star with Good Will Hunting in which I felt that to be the case.  His accent is all over the place.  Sometimes he simply sounds like he is trying to talk in a very low register and it feels forced, other times it feels like there is an Irish accent sneaking in, while sometimes he just sounds like Matt Damon.

The Great Wall is an interesting concept, but the execution is way off.  It needed to aim more towards camp and less towards battle epic or vise versa, but by trying to tightrope between the two it falls off.  But if it makes plenty of money in China, you can bet there will be a sequel.

The Great Wall is rated PG-13 for “sequences of fantasy action violence.”  The violence is all very cartoony, so not really much to be too concerned about.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of The Great Wall.