Skip to main content

What god made these things?

The Great Wall
(2016)

(SPOILERS) I’ve seen comments that The Great Wall isn’t a great white hero movie, as Matt Damon is only a supporting character. Who are they trying to kid? Sure, he isn’t the character extending ultimate authority in Zhang Yimou’s latest foray into the realm of colourful, stylised martial arts choreography, but the emotional beats undoubtedly revolve around him, as does the unrefined arc of an archer for hire discovering a higher cause.


In all honesty, I wasn’t that taken with Yimou’s earlier pictures in the same genre (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) as replete with gorgeous imagery as they are.  The Great Wall is duly impressive on the costuming front – much less so Matt’s fake beard, and it’s a relief to makeup artists everywhere when he ditches it – and Yimou stages several impressive action sequences during the first half (notably they all involve Damon braving it against CGI beasties; a scene in which Tain Jing bungee attacks the monsters unleashed on the wall only succeeds in illustrating what a daft idea that is).


Unfortunately, The Great Wall’s plot is entirely rudimentary (the Great Wall of China was built to withstand the onslaught of creatures such as this… and that’s it; oh, and they’re smarter than anyone realised, so a wall it took 1700 years to put up is reduced to a “Doh!” when it becomes clear they dug a tunnel underneath). There’s also no attempt to disguise the cynicism with which this US-China co-production attempts to break into that lucrative Chinese market and co-opt it for international appeal (spearheaded by Legendary, now owned by the Wanda group, which also put Jing in Kong: Skull Island and gave her absolutely nothing to do). Six writers get a credit, including the duo who gave us the inglorious Prince of Persia (I’m assuming it was Damon who brought Tony Gilroy on board), and the plotting and characterisation never rise above the generic.


Hollywood’s simply at a loss in the face of unassailable Chinese box office. When the fourth most successful film of the year globally is a Chinese movie that made almost 99% of its $870m gross in the home market, what need is there to export? Conversely, of course, Hollywood sees dollar signs so will throw money at that director to come over, where he will likely end up in the same situation as every other imported talent who gets wrung through the system (be it a John Woo or Paul Verhoeven).


Still, The Great Wall managed to make half its gross outside of China, so it wasn’t a total bust, but since half its gross is what it cost to make, it wasn’t a sound investment either. For such an expensive movie, the CGI is resoundingly average at best, rudimentary at worst. Jing makes little impression, although Hanyu Zhang and particularly Andy Lau fare better, making the best they can from cardboard cut-out characters. Damon is surprisingly okay here, considering he doesn’t really fit a period piece like this at all. Perhaps it’s just that he’s so damn personable. Pedro Pascal is the rascally sidekick through and through, with all that entails, while Willem Dafoe is unforgivably wasted as a schemer who wants the black powder for himself.


I was reasonably on board with The Great Wall for the first hour, but it descends into unstinting dullness as it progresses. There’s a sequence where our heroes must head to the capital on balloons that is both dangerous looking (most of them appear to be going down in flames) and replete with entirely unconvincing effects, while the climax is a complete wash (although, the manner in which Damon and Pascal head off on new adventures at the end has such cheerful flippancy, it reminded me of nothing so much as carefree family adventure romps of yesteryear, from Ray Harryhausen to ‘80s Raiders-rip-offs). Someone should have realised there was big trouble on this great wall of China before throwing shed loads of money at it.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

They make themselves now.

Screamers (1995)
(SPOILERS) Adapting Philip K Dick isn’t as easy as it may seem, but that doesn't stop eager screenwriters from attempting to hit that elusive jackpot. The recent Electric Dreams managed to exorcise most of the existential gymnastics and doubts that shine through in the best versions of his work, leaving material that felt sadly facile. Dan O'Bannon had adapted Second Variety more than a decade before it appeared as Screamers, a period during which he and Ronald Shusett also turned We Can Remember It For You Wholesale into Total Recall. So the problem with Screamers isn't really the (rewritten) screenplay, which is more faithful than most to its source material (setting aside). The problem with Screamers is largely that it's cheap as chips.

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

My pectorals may leave much to be desired, Mrs Peel, but I’m the most powerful man you’ve ever run into.

The Avengers 2.23: The Positive-Negative Man
If there was a lesson to be learned from Season Five, it was not to include "man" in your title, unless it involves his treasure. The See-Through Man may be the season's stinker, but The Positive-Negative Man isn't far behind, a bog-standard "guy with a magical science device uses it to kill" plot. A bit like The Cybernauts, but with Michael Latimer painted green and a conspicuous absence of a cool hat.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

The possibilities are gigantic. In a very small way, of course.

The Avengers 5.24: Mission… Highly Improbable
With a title riffing on a then-riding-high US spy show, just as the previous season's The Girl from Auntie riffed on a then-riding-high US spy show, it's to their credit that neither have even the remotest connection to their "inspirations" besides the cheap gags (in this case, the episode was based on a teleplay submitted back in 1964). Mission… Highly Improbable follows in the increasing tradition (certainly with the advent of Season Five and colour) of SF plotlines, but is also, in its particular problem with shrinkage, informed by other recent adventurers into that area.

What a truly revolting sight.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) (2017)
(SPOILERS) The biggest mistake the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels have made is embracing continuity. It ought to have been just Jack Sparrow with an entirely new cast of characters each time (well, maybe keep Kevin McNally). Even On Stranger Tides had Geoffrey Rush obligatorily returning as Barbossa. Although, that picture’s biggest problem was its director; Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge has a pair of solid helmers in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, which is a relief at least. But alas, the continuity is back with a vengeance. And then some. Why, there’s even an origin-of-Jack Sparrow vignette, to supply us with prerequisite, unwanted and distracting uncanny valley (or uncanny Johnny) de-aging. The movie as a whole is an agreeable time passer, by no means the dodo its critical keelhauling would suggest, albeit it isn’t even pretending to try hard to come up with …