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The Great Wall

It’s exceedingly difficult to overstate the growing importance of China with regard to our film industry. With a population of over 1.3 billion people, it’s the crown jewel of the international market, and therefore the potential savior to turn a domestic flop into a box office hit. Conversely, it could also mean the difference between an active franchise and a failed investment.

As a direct result, we’ve seen studios actively court Chinese co-financing (as with Legendary Pictures getting bought by the Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group). We’ve seen Chinese studios directly making American films, the most high-profile of which is probably Huayi Brothers Pictures (which gave us Free State of Jones, Warcraft, and Hardcore Henry, among others). We’ve even seen movies that actively portray China in a heroic light (The Martian and Arrival come to mind) and movies that get cut to fit the more stringent censorship laws of Beijing.

Of course, that was all before our 45th president got elected on a wave of anti-Chinese rhetoric. It remains to be seen what effect this will have, if any.

Right now, we’ve got The Great Wall, which comes to us from the aforementioned Legendary Pictures, shortly after its acquisition by the aforementioned Chinese company. It’s got a reported $150 million budget. It’s got producer extraordinaire Thomas Tull, Tony Gilroy and Max Brooks helping to write the screenplay, and Matt Damon at the top of the marquee alongside Willem Dafoe in a supporting role. Then we’ve got the prominent filmmaker Zhang Yimou making his English-language directorial debut, with Jing Tian and Andy Lau in the cast. On cinematography are Stuart Dryburgh and Zhao Xiaoding, so we literally have an American and a Chinese man sharing the camera. It’s safe to say that never in history have we seen a Chinese/American cinematic collaboration to such an extent on such a scale.

That said, there’s an unfortunate drawback when the cast, crew, and intended audience are all made so much more massive: The lowest common denominator gets to be a whole lot lower.

The premise centers around the titular Great Wall of China, here manned by an army of thousands called the Nameless Order. They fight to preserve China’s northern border from the monstrous Tao Tei, which (to make a drawn-out story short) are aliens made in a flimsy metaphor for greed. Though honestly, they’re just an ugly mass of pixels that are as weak or strong as the plot needs them to be in the moment.

Matt Damon plays the foreigner who wanders into this mess, which means that there was indeed a story-related reason to cast a white guy in the lead role. In point of fact, Damon plays William, a mercenary who’s grown up fighting in so many wars that he’s conveniently void of any specific European nationality. Though he does have a partner (Tovar, played by Pedro Pascal) who’s quite definitely Spanish. And together, they’re the last of an expedition sent to bring back the mythical black powder that can turn air into fire and wipe out whole armies at a time.

The Great Wall is my least favorite kind of film to write about because it’s empty. There’s nothing to talk about that you don’t already know. The plot is derivative and transparent as it gets. The themes of greed and trust are so flimsy and ill-defined they may as well not be there. You could take an Etch-a-Sketch with a defective knob and still perfectly draw every single character arc. Seriously, we’ve seen these same characters so many times that every single actor looks like they’re slumming it. Matt Damon is of course the most prominent example, as the brooding loner who has to choose between his own self-interest and joining the greater cause, blah blah blah. But my own personal favorite example is Willem Dafoe — he’s played this exact same character in so many better movies that watching him phone it in here is just embarrassing.

Then we have the CGI, which looks like total shit from the opening shot onwards. The aliens are pug-uglies void of any character, the wide shots of the Great Wall look pathetically plastic, and the main battlefield is such a grey nondescript void that it looks like it was ripped off from goddamn Dracula Untold. In fact, given that they were both heavily derivative Universal/Legendary productions, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they really did reuse that same CGI set.

And the close-up shots. Even when the scene is of two characters talking, it’s often done in extreme close-up, such that we switch from one character’s face to the other every five seconds. What’s even worse is when the action scenes are done in close-up, and I’m not even talking about all the obnoxious shit flying toward the camera. I’m talking about those few brief, incoherent, puke-inducing moments when the camera’s shaking and we’re too close to whatever’s moving to make out what it is. Seriously, that’s a special kind of inept.

But is the film entirely void of merit? Of course not. This was, after all, a hugely ambitious project, and it’s clearly shown in the production design. In those moments when we’re allowed to take in the hundreds of extras in their highly-detailed and color-coded uniforms, the epic scope of this production is truly breathtaking. The Nameless Order has this sprawling culture, with so many details that were a lot of fun to learn about. And the Wall itself has so many tricks and weapons that are dazzling in their variety and novelty.

This brings me to the film’s other saving grace: Its female lead, a senior commander in the Nameless Order. Lin Mae (Tian Jing) is never a damsel in distress, her development as a character feels natural, and she’s every bit as competent as her male counterpart if not more so. She’s probably the only character in this entire cast who consistently does the smart thing instead of the cliched thing, though there are one or two debatable exceptions. There are times when she’s just about to be a contrived love interest or some other useless plot object, but she only ever comes within a hair’s breadth before getting pulled back. She’s a wonderful female lead, and I absolutely respect that.

All told, The Great Wall is the epitome of empty spectacle. There’s just enough ambition and creativity (especially in the production design) to show just how lazy the plot and the CGI are. The one good character — specifically Lin Mae — only highlights how uninspired and poorly realized the other characters are. There are a couple of good action moments, a few funny lines, and some dazzling sequences, but only enough to elevate the overall product to “enjoyably bad”.

And as for 3D? Forget it. Between the five-second close-up shots and the ugly CGI, it was hard enough to watch this in two dimensions, never mind three.

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