THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE GREAT WALL"
One of the most annoying trends in current movie marketing is trailers that contain the words “From Visionary Director...” The Great Wall had one of those trailers. In this case, though, it's certainly true. Zhang Yimou is a Chinese filmmaker whose work – which includes the magnificent Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower – is known for its visual sumptuousness and bold use of bright colors. For The Great Wall, he applies those qualities to a big, intentionally goofy monster movie. It's a combination that provides some real fun, although only to a point.
The film purports to tell one of several legends involving the Great Wall of China. Two European mercenaries, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), are searching for black powder when they stumble upon the wall. It is here that they encounter the Nameless Order, a military group defending the wall and everything behind it from a horde of monsters that repeatedly attack. The men join forces with Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) to fight the creatures off. William's archery skills prove a nice supplement to the Order's aerial-acrobatic, catapult, and other units. Lurking around the premises is Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another European who has been taken prisoner by the Order. He hopes William and Tovar will help him escape.
Zhang Yimou stages the monster attacks with style and energy. Even if the creatures look like CGI effects, there's no denying that great attention has been put into showing how the humans fight them. One particularly effective sequence finds soldiers bungee-jumping from the top of the wall's towers. As they approach the ground, they stab the monsters with spears, then spring back up again. (That little bit is filmed from the dizzying POV of the divers.) Some scenes are more tongue-in-cheek. At one point, Tovar waves a red cape in front of a monster, much like a bullfighter. As the thing runs toward him, he whips the cape aside to reveal an armed William, his bow ready to shoot the beast right in the face. Many times, the battle scenes are filmed in slow motion to allow the audience to really savor the crazy-inventive combat techniques used by the warriors.
The Great Wall deserves serious credit for outstanding use of the 3D foreground effect. Arrows, flaming fireballs, and monster claws all come flying off the screen toward your face. It's been a while since a non-kids' movie so fearlessly embraced the “popping out” idea. Is it a little cheesy at times? Sure, but the movie is cheesy (on purpose), so it fits perfectly, adding an extra layer of pure fun. A few extra bucks for the 3D format is worth it.
While the monster battles are undeniably entertaining, The Great Wall comes to a screeching halt whenever it focuses on the people. The characters are frustratingly paper-thin, as is the plot. These days, studios are eager to join the Billion Dollar Club. Expensive action movies are designed to play around the world, with the idea that they can earn a billion dollars globally. Consequently, they are often simplified so that, no matter where they are exhibited, audiences will be able to grasp them. The Great Wall feels as though it was designed according to this theory. The action – which is understandable in any language – is awesome. Everything else is so bland that it needs no translation. That proves to be a fairly serious undoing. A tighter story and more vivid characters would have elevated the movie to top-tier monster cinema.
The picture is great to look at, and the director has a blast devising creative ways in which to shoot the bits involving the monsters. The Great Wall is disappointingly empty beyond that. This is half a really enjoyable creature feature and half a lackadaisical piece of global “product.”
( 1/2 out of four)
The Great Wall is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.
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