Movie Review: “The Great Wall” (PG-13)

The great Yimou Zhang is a masterful visual storyteller, there’s no doubt about that. Through the years, he’s given us gorgeous cinematic efforts like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” But for all it’s visual splendor, Zhang’s latest epic, “The Great Wall,” is decidedly not-so-great. It’s definitely not a train wreck but certainly not entirely worthy of all the talent involved, either.

In ancient China, a pair of mercenaries join forces with a massive army to defend a kingdom against thousands of carnivorous creatures. All that stands between this army and said creatures is The Great Wall of China. That’s right. After thousands of years, the truth is finally upon us. The Great Wall was actually designed to keep monsters out of China.

Movie Review The Great WallAt the center of this movie is Matt Damon’s William, a self-serving expert bowman who suddenly finds himself with a grander purpose in life. Having said that, William takes a back seat to Tian Jing’s Commander Lin Mae, a fiercely independent warrior who refuses to be duped by something as simple as an army of carnivorous monsters or a couple of thieving mercenaries.

For the most part, “The Great Wall” is breathtaking to look at. The sets are massive, the cast is plentiful, the costume designs are stunning, and the colors literally pop off the screen. If only the story and characters were able to rise up to the level of sheer awesomeness of the film’s overall look. Even the geopolitical subtext in “The Great Wall” takes a huge back seat to what is essentially silly B-movie schlock. Not that I have anything against B-movie schlock in general. On the contrary, I tend to love it, but “The Great Wall” feels like a movie that wants to be more.

Aside from that, there’s been a lot of talk of whitewashing in movies as of late (See “Gods of Egypt”), and “The Great Wall” has been unable to escape such chatter. Interestingly enough, though, while a lot of the marketing for this movie suggests that Damon’s character arrives to save all of China, the story doesn’t really play out like that. Lin Mae is the real hero in the picture, and while that is refreshing, it isn’t enough to save “The Great Wall.” Too often, this homage to the likes of “Lord of the Rings,” “Aliens,” and “Godzilla” is drowned out by cheesy dialogue, weird scene transitions, and a distracting appearance by a usually dependable Willem Dafoe. Seriously, I’m still not entirely sure what he was doing in this movie. What’s more, the contentious monsters at the center of “The Great Wall” lack any sort of personality. The sequences that find these creatures collectively dog-piling on top of one another in an effort to breach The Great Wall reminded me of those poorly rendered zombie effects sequences in “World War Z.”

As for the gifted Damon, this may be only the second time in his career that he feels sorely miscast in a movie (the first time being his appearance in Terry Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm). He certainly makes an effort here, but William as written is stock and lacking in any sort of sufficient arc, and Damon simply isn’t able to rise above that.

“The Great Wall” is hardly an unmitigated disaster. Zhang brings the visual bravado, and his latest effort certainly has some entertainment value to offer up. But at the end of the day, it’s not a picture you’re likely to remember a few weeks after you’ve watched it.

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