Film Review: The Great Wall

Significant Hollywood input and Chinese money don’t prevent this lavish good-warriors-vs.-bad-monsters. legend-based action-adventure described as “China’s largest film ever” from being so Chinese that American fans of the action genre may resist.
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Matt Damon, as a captured western mercenary in 12th-century China facing tens of thousands of cannibalistic monsters threatening not just a great fortress behind the storied China Wall but the whole East, really has his hands full. But so do Universal and their mostly Chinese partners in their conquest of American audiences.

The Great Wall, an unprecedented collaboration of both American and Chinese media giants and creatives, brings out an impressive cache of weaponry in its bid to be a blockbuster. The arsenal tapped includes stars Damon, Willem Dafoe and Pedro Pascal (“Game of Thrones,” “Narcos”) and Asian luminaries and superstars, especially Jing Tian as the attractive young fortress commander Lin Mae, who bonds with Damon’s William Garin in the epic battle of tens of thousands to fight the threat. Most notably in this Sino-American mix is acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou, well-known to art-house fans for Oscar-nominated Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

As The Great Wall has it, thanks to a script and story by a phalanx of Hollywood heavyweights, the monstrous threat has been hiding for centuries behind the indescribably gargantuan Great Wall and emerges every 60 years: They are predatory Tao Tei creatures with telepathic powers, who resemble large lizard mutants (or small dinosaur ones).

After the film kicks off with a ferocious desert battle that has mercenaries Garin, a master archer, and his wisecracking, loyal sidekick Tovar (Pascal) escaping as the sole survivors, they land exhausted at the Fortress City military outpost overseen by The Nameless Order, a vast, secret army of elite warriors who arrest the pair. But when the threat of the monsters grows dire and the Order’s commander Lin Mae notices Garin’s fighting prowess, she taps the two Westerners to help defend the Fortress and Wall. And, heck, all of civilization.

Throwing in a wrench is the film’s sole human villain, fellow prisoner and mercenary Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a bitter lifer at the Fortress bent on escape and testing Tovar’s loyalty to Garin.

The predictable follows: The monsters attack; battles scenes rage; special effects, elaborate production design and exotic Chinese locations deliver eye-popping visuals; and a near-nonstop avalanche of loud whooshes, explosions and music bring ear-popping sounds. Everything here is large, noisy and reflective of Chinese history, legend and culture.

Also familiar are elements like the much-sought-after explosive black powder the three mercenaries desire and the many magical and quirky objects (magnets, talismans, animal claws, flying arrows, fires, airborne fighters, etc.) meant to enrich the story but which merely trivialize it. And even a cute young Emperor (Junkai Wang) shows up for no particular reason except maybe to up the Chinese content.

With such significant Hollywood input, The Great Wall, if nothing else, may signal the emergence of a new “Made for China” product line that will continue to teach the Chinese film industry how to make blockbusters Hollywood-style that work globally. But Hollywood’s DNA has escaped them here.

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