Friday, February 17, 2017

Zaki's Review: The Great Wall

When the promo campaign for Universal/Legendary's big budget opus The Great Wall first kicked into gear last year, it seems like almost all of the commentary focused on the fact that we had a Chinese-set film about China's past made by a Chinese director -- that centered on an American actor: Matt Damon. Here we go, Hollywood whitewashing history yet again, right?

I wasn't necessarily outraged by the incongruity, but I did kind of chuckle at it. Of course, that was without really knowing anything about the film itself. Having seen it now, I can say Damon's inclusion makes sense, and isn't anywhere near as egregious as some were intimating. But above and beyond that, the movie itself is a fun spectacle, offering a rare glimpse (in this kind of film) into China's rich cultural history within a blockbuster, fantasy framework.

Set around the 10th century, the $150 million production is directed by veteran Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou and centers on William (Damon, sporting a nondescript "European-ish" accent), a wandering bandit in search of mythical, explosive "black powder" along with his partner Tovar (Pedro Pascal). After coming upon the Great Wall of China, the pair are inadvertently drawn into a conflict between the guardians of the wall (the mysterious "Nameless Order") and the Taotie, a race of horrific monsters (culled from Chinese legend).

Naturally it isn't long before William, an archer whose prowess surpasses anyone else's in the army, proves his mettle in combat. And although his partner wants to take off at first opportunity with fellow stranded European Ballard (Willem Dafoe), William is compelled to stay by a growing sense of duty, as well as his attraction to Chinese military leader Lin Mae (Jing Tian), and his skill with the bow may be the only thing standing between the people of China and the encroaching computer-generated horde intent on crossing the barrier and invading.

With a story credited to three people (among them World War Z writer Max Brooks) and a screenplay credited to a different three (among them Bourne writer Tony Gilroy), The Great Wall sometimes feels like it's taking us through a Reader's Digest version of the Hero's Journey. But though the various character arcs entirely are predictable as it goes through its paces, it does manage to engage the senses while doing so. As directed by Yimou, the film skillfully assembled and has some nice eye-popping moments to justify the use of 3D.

The Great Wall is a movie I absolutely would have eaten up as a ten-year old, and that's not a ding on it. It's a big, wide-open, international production of the kind we get far too little of these days. While it's already done quite well outside of the US, I have a feeling American audiences will ignore it, which is a shame. It's not perfect, but it's the rare big budget offering that gives us a respite from reboots, remakes, prequels, sequels and franchises in favor of an original idea anchored by a talented star and cast, and that alone makes it worth recommending. B

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