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Millions of people watching the 2017 Oscars would have seen Jimmy Kimmel roasting poor Matt Damon as a part of their long running 'feud'. At one point he points out that Matt gave up the leading role in "Manchester by the Sea" to star in a "Chinese ponytail movie" that "went on to lose $80 million at the box office". "The Great Wall" is that movie!
So is it really that bad?
Well, it's no "Manchester by the Sea" for sure. But I don't think it's quite the total turkey that critics have been labelling it as either. I went to see it on a Sunday afternoon, and approaching it as a matinée bit of frothy action is a good mental state to be in.
Matt Damon plays the ponytailed-wonder William, a European mercenary travelling in 11th Century China with his colleague Tovar (Pedro Pascal) in an attempt to determine the secrets of black powder – a secret well-guarded by the Chinese. Captured by the 'New Order' at the Great Wall and imprisoned there by General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), William earns the respect of Shao and his beautiful warrior second- in- command Lin Mae (Tian Jing) with his bowmanship. This is almost immediately put to use by the arrival (after 60 year's absence – a funny thing, timing, isn't it?) of hoards of vicious creatures called Taoties. (I thought they said Tauntauns initially, so was expecting some sort of Chinese/Star Wars crossover! But no.)
Taoties who scale the wall are defeated by William who poleaxes them. (This is an attempt at brilliant humour to anyone who has already seen the film – poleaxe . get it? POLEaxe. Oh, never mind!) Despite being a mercenary at heart, William is torn between staying and helping Lin Mae fight the beasts and fleeing with Tovar, their new chum Ballard (Willem Dafoe) and their black powder loot. (I'm sure something about Lin Mae's tight-fitting blue armour was influential in his decision).
This is an historic film in that although in recent years there has been cross-fertilization of Chinese actors into Western films for box-office reasons (for example, in the appalling "Independence Day: Resurgence" and the much better Damon vehicle "The Martian") this was the first truly co-produced Chinese/Hollywood feature filmed entirely in China. It might also be the last given the film's $150 million budget and the dismal box-office!
To start with some positives, you can rely on a Chinese-set film (the film location was Qingdao) to allow the use of an army of extras and – although a whole bunch of CGI was also no doubt used – some of the battles scenes are impressive. There is a stirring choral theme by Ramin Djawadi (best known for his TV themes for "Game of Thrones" and the brilliant "Westworld") played over silk-screen painted end titles that just make for a beautiful combination. And Tian Jing as the heroine Lin Mae is not only stunningly good-looking but also injects some much needed acting talent into the cast, where most of those involved (including Damon himself) look like they would rather be somewhere else.
And some of the action scenes are rather fun in a 'park your brain by the door' sort of way, including (nonsensically) cute warrior girls high-diving off the wall on bungey ropes to near certain death. While the CGI monsters are of the (yawn) over-the-top LoTR variety, their ability to swarm like locusts at the Queen's command is also quite entertainingly rendered.
Where the movie balloon comes crashing down to earth in flames though is with the story and the screenplay – all done by three different people each, which is NEVER a good sign.
The story (by Max Brooks ("World War Z"), Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (both on "The Last Samurai") is plain nonsensical at times. No spoilers here, but the transition from "wall under siege" to "wall not under siege" gives the word 'clunky' a bad name. As another absurdity, the "New Order" seem amazed how William was able to slay one of the creatures (thanks to the poleaxing 'McGuffin' previously referenced) but then throughout the rest of the film he slays creatures left right and centre (McGuffin-less) through just the use of a spear or an arrow! Bonkers.
Things get worse when you add words to the actions. The screenplay by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro (both "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time") and Tony Gilroy (Tony Gilroy? Surely not he of all the "Bourne" films and "Rogue One" fame? The very same!) has a reading age of about an 8 year old. It feels like it has been translated into Chinese and then back again to English with Google Translate. "Is that the best you can do?" asks Tovar to William at one point. I was thinking exactly the same thing.
The combination of the cinematography and the special effects have the unfortunate effect of giving the film the veneer of a video game, but this is one where your kid-brother has stolen the controls and refuses to give them back to you.
Having had the great thrill of visiting a section of The Great Wall near Beijing, I can confirm that it is an astonishing engineering masterpiece that has to be seen to be truly believed. It ranks as one of the genuine wonders of the world. The same can not be said of this movie. Early teens might enjoy it as a mindless action flick. But otherwise best avoided until it emerges on a raining Sunday afternoon on the TV.
(For the graphical version of this review, and to comment, please visit bob-the-movie-man.com).
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