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

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

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

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…

Everyone wants a happy ending and everyone wants closure but that's not the way life works out.

It Chapter Two (2019)
(SPOILERS) An exercise in stultifying repetitiveness, It Chapter Two does its very best to undo all the goodwill engendered by the previous instalment. It may simply be that adopting a linear approach to the novel’s interweaving timelines has scuppered the sequel’s chances of doing anything the first film hasn’t. Oh, except getting rid of Pennywise for good, which you’d be hard-pressed to discern as substantially different to the CGI-infused confrontation in the first part, Native American ritual aside.

Check it out. I wonder if BJ brought the Bear with him.

Death Proof (2007)
(SPOILERS) In a way, I’m slightly surprised Tarantino didn’t take the opportunity to disown Death Proof, to claim that, as part of Grindhouse, it was no more one of his ten-official-films-and-out than his Four Rooms segment. But that would be to spurn the exploitation genre affectation that has informed everything he’s put his name to since Kill Bill, to a greater or less extent, and also require him to admit that he was wrong, and you won’t find him doing that for anything bar My Best Friend’s Birthday.

That woman, deserves her revenge and… we deserve to die. But then again, so does she.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2  (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’m not sure I can really conclude whether one Kill Bill is better than the other, since I’m essentially with Quentin in his assertion that they’re one film, just cut into two for the purposes of a selling point. I do think Kill Bill: Vol. 2 has the movie’s one actually interesting character, though, and I’m not talking David Carradine’s title role.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I’ll be waiting.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
(SPOILERS) It sometimes seems as if Quentin Tarantino – in terms of his actual movies, rather than nearly getting Uma killed in an auto stunt – is the last bastion of can-do-no-wrong on the Internet. Or at very least has the preponderance of its vocal weight behind him. Back when his first two movies proper were coming out, so before online was really a thing, I’d likely have agreed, but by about the time the Kill Bills arrived, I’d have admitted I was having serious pause about him being all he was cracked up to be. Because the Kill Bills aren’t very good, and they’ve rather characterised his hermetically sealed wallowing in obscure media trash and genre cul-de-sacs approach to his art ever since. Sometimes to entertaining effect, sometimes less so, but always ever more entrenching his furrow; as Neil Norman note in his Evening Standard review, “Tarantino has attempted (and largely succeeded) in making a movie whose only reality is that of celluloid”. Extend t…

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
(SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump. And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.