The Great Wall is the latest film from acclaimed Chinese director Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). The movie doesn’t arrive free of controversy, though – as with most quote/unquote “controversy” – it’s of the ignorantly manufactured type. People everywhere took to their keyboards to accuse Universal Studios of whitewashing a film about the Great Wall in China, blissfully unaware (or uncaring) of the fact that the film is helmed by a Chinese director who outright stated that there’s a storyline reason for the presence of Damon’s character. But, far be it for most people these days to sit back and let others actually do their job after years and years of earning their spot and the trust of the audience. This is the kind of thing, much like the fake news regarding animal abuse on the set of A Dog’s Purpose, that unfairly damages the reputation and performance of movies and hurts the careers of the people who make them.
What really matters is the quality of the film, itself. And that can only be fairly gauged by those who watch the movie and do so with an open mind. And that’s what I did, today. The concept is a simple one: monsters are attacking the Great Wall of China. There you go. Matt Damon plays William, a European mercenary coming to China to learn their secrets of war. He has done much travelling and has his own secrets to share. And the Chinese can use any new ideas they can get, because the aforementioned monsters are waging battle against them and the monsters are winning.
Surely another complaint much of the public (many of whom won’t even bother to see the film) will have is that it’s the white guy who comes in and saves the day for the Chinese. It’s possible to see it that way. But only if you don’t actually follow the movie or put any legitimate thought into it. Yes, Matt Damon is a white guy. But he’s carrying techniques with him that he’s learned from other, non-white countries. He’s able to travel and learn. The Chinese aren’t. They’re a little busy staying home and protecting their country from the ravenous beasts just outside of their wall. So, if people don’t have intelligent insights into and criticisms of the film, they should just not talk about it.
So, aside from all of that, the film is . . . fine, I guess? I have no real problems with it. But, at the same time, it didn’t particularly blow me away. Fifteen years ago, The Great Wall would have been a barn-burning blockbuster that the whole world would have gone crazy over. Now, it’s just part of the pack. The good news is that it’s already raked in well over $200 million overseas, largely thanks to (naturally) China. Still, it has about $150 million more to go before it can be considered to be even a moderate hit. It’s not going to make that in North America (but it will do better in February than it would have done in the crowded summer months), but it might keep chugging in China.
It just fails to stand out in any way. It’s not so much that this particular idea has been done, before. It hasn’t, per se. But I was reminded – in terms of the monsters and action set pieces – of a mix between Aliens and The Avengers. However, even though I didn’t dislike this film, it’s not anywhere near the quality of either of those films. The dialogue was uninteresting, the characters were a little flat, and the action was competent, but largely uninspired. Also, the majesty, poetry, and magnificence of Yimou’s earlier films is almost entirely absent. So, as I said, it feels like More Of The Same.
These days, gigantic, special-effects driven films are the norm. There needs to be more to capture the imagination than just the action. The Great Wall offers decent (if sometimes poorly-thought-out, from the perspective of the characters) action, pretty cool-looking creatures, a solid but mostly wasted cast, and a bunch of crossed fingers that that’s going to be enough. If you want to see it, go see it. I didn’t hate it. You might not, either. But my expectations have been raised by total packages like the Marvel Studios films, high-brow think-pieces like Ex Machina and Arrival, and much more memorable and spectacular action experiences like Jurassic World. And The Great Wall doesn’t meet any of those expectations. What would have been considered must-see, a decade-and-a-half ago, isn’t going to be viewed as much more than a time-killer on an easygoing weekend, in 2017. If you weren’t dying to see it, I’d wait until Logan and Kong: Skull Island.
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