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…

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…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

No time to dilly-dally, Mr Wick.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
(SPOILERS) At one point during John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, our eponymous hero announces he needs “Guns, lots of guns” in a knowing nod to Keanu Reeves’ other non-Bill & Ted franchise. It’s a cute moment, but it also points to the manner in which the picture, enormous fun as it undoubtedly is, is a slight step down for a franchise previously determined to outdo itself, giving way instead to something more self-conscious, less urgent and slightly fractured.

She worshipped that pig. And now she's become him.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)
(SPOILERS) Choosing to make The Girl in the Spider’s Web following the failure of the David Fincher film – well, not a failure per se, but like Blade Runner 2049, it simply cost far too much to justify its inevitably limited returns – was a very bizarre decision on MGM’s part. A decision to reboot, with a different cast, having no frame of reference for the rest of the trilogy unless you checked out the Swedish movies (or read the books, but who does that?); someone actually thought this would possibly do well? Evidently the same execs churning out desperately flailing remakes based on their back catalogue of IPs (Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven, Death Wish, Tomb Raider); occasionally there’s creative flair amid the dross (Creed, A Star is Born), but otherwise, it’s the most transparently creatively bankrupt studio there is.

Isn’t Johnnie simply too fantastic for words?

Suspicion (1941)
(SPOILERS) Suspicion found Alfred Hitchcock basking in the warm glow of Rebecca’s Best Picture Oscar victory the previous year (for which he received his first of five Best Director nominations, famously winning none of them). Not only that, another of his films, Foreign Correspondent, had jostled with Rebecca for attention. Suspicion was duly nominated itself, something that seems less unlikely now we’ve returned to as many as ten award nominees annually (numbers wouldn’t be reduced to five until 1945). And still more plausible, in and of itself, than his later and final Best Picture nod, Spellbound. Suspicion has a number of claims to eminent status, not least the casting of Cary Grant, if not quite against type, then playing on his charm as a duplicitous quality, but it ultimately falls at the hurdle of studio-mandated compromise.

I mean, I think anybody who looked at Fred, looked at somebody that they couldn't compare with anybody else.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) 
(SPOILERS) I did, of course, know who Fred Rogers was, despite being British. Or rather, I knew his sublimely docile greeting song. How? The ‘Burbs, naturally. I was surprised, given the seeming unanimous praise it was receiving (and the boffo doco box office) that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? didn’t garner a Best Documentary Oscar nod, but now I think I can understand why. It’s as immensely likeable as Mr Rogers himself, yet it doesn’t feel very substantial.

I think, I ruminate, I plan.

The Avengers 6.5: Get-A-Way
Another very SF story, and another that recalls earlier stories, in this case 5.5: The See-Through Man, in which Steed states baldly “I don’t believe in invisible men”. He was right in that case, but he’d have to eat his bowler here. Or half of it, anyway. The intrigue of Get-A-Way derives from the question of how it is that Eastern Bloc spies have escaped incarceration, since it isn’t immediately announced that a “magic potion” is responsible. And if that reveal isn’t terribly convincing, Peter Bowles makes the most of his latest guest spot as Steed’s self-appointed nemesis Ezdorf.

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

She can't act, she can't sing, she can't dance. A triple threat.