Unfocused 'The Great Wall' crumbles under the weight of its lofty expectations

The Great Wall (Universal)

The Great Wall
2 out of 5 Stars
Yimou Zhang
Writers: Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herkovitz, Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy
Starring: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence
Recommended to: Those looking for a film that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be

Synopsis: Mercenaries have come to China to find the “black powder,” but instead they discover inhospitable locals and an army of beasts. Captured by the Chinese forces who defend the Great Wall, the surviving mercenaries, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) must convince their captors that their ability to help fight the monsters is reason enough to let them live.

Review: Famed Chinese director Yimou Zhang has impressed Western audiences with films like 2002’s “Hero” and 2004’s “House of Flying Daggers.” I've been a fan of his for years and highly recommend checking out his work, particularly "To Live," "Coming Home," "Shanghai Triad " and "Raise the Red Lantern." “The Great Wall” is a co-production between China and the USA that is unfortunately undermined by its American element. The script, which lists six different individuals (none of which appear to be Chinese), is a mess of bad dialogue and plot elements lifted from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “Starship Troopers.”

Ironically, the Chinese cast seems to take things very seriously (like The Lord of the Rings films) while the rest of the cast seems to think they’re in a massive B-movie that is anything buy serious (much like “Starship Troopers”). Maybe there was some sort of language barrier when it came to Zhang’s direction or perhaps he was simply as confused as everyone else as to how to approach a story about monsters attacking the Great Wall. Either way the film suffers.

The film also suffers because, despite having a budget of $150 million, the digital effects are abysmal. The film opens up with the sort of CGI that would have been passable 15 years ago, but wouldn’t even be acceptable in a modern video game. The digital backgrounds are less effective than a matte painting and the beasts themselves aren’t nearly as effective as they should be. Had the film cost $40 million I might understand, but with a massive budget I expect a higher level of quality than what this film is able to give.

That said, the practical aspects, particularly the armor and costumes, are fantastic.

The most frustrating aspect of the film is that despite all of its tonal inconsistencies and more than its share of ridiculous plotting there is actually enough here to suggest that this could have been a wildly entertaining film.

I understand the desire to make films that are equally appealing to American and Chinese audiences. I know that, despite what anyone who like to believe, that the movie industry is a business that is more focused on turning a profit than it is on creating high art. But you can’t always just manufacture a hit by trying to appeal to multiple audiences. We’ll see how “The Great Wall” does at the box office, but there’s no question in my mind that the lackluster quality of the film is going to keep it from becoming a success in America.

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