Reviews for the Easily Distracted

Reviews For The Easily Distracted:
The Great Wall

Title: The Great Wall

Describe This Movie In One Simpsons Quote:

Mr. Burns: "You know, I'm no art critic, but I know what I hate. And I don't hate this."

Brief Plot Synopsis:
 Sir Jason of Bourne gets medieval on some Eastern demon ass.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Three orc suicide bombers out of five.

Tagline: "1,700 years to build. 5,500 miles long. What were they trying to keep out?"

Better Tagline: "1,700 years to build a wall? #Sad!"

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: What could tempt Western mercenaries to brave the hostile reaches of northern China? Black powder, that’s what, and it’s the reason William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are fleeing the bandits that killed their entire crew. The pair fall from the frying pan into the fire when they stumble upon(!) a giant freaking wall, manned by troops belonging to something called the "Nameless Order." They soon discover the wall’s purpose — repelling hordes of alien monsters (the "Tao Tei") intent on breaking through to the capital — and are faced with a choice: Join the struggle, or abscond with some of the Wall’s gunpowder weapons.

"Critical" Analysis: Zhang Yimou has been making movies in China for 30 years, earning three Academy Award nominations (all for Best Foreign Film) in that time. His works are largely period efforts (some wuxia, some not), ranging from the 1940s back to dynastic times, so of course his first major American release features Matt Damon fighting dinosaurs.

That’s a simplistic take, but The Great Wall isn’t what you would refer to as a “deep” film. Zhang has too many characters to juggle to provide elaborate motivations, and with a relatively short running time for an epic actioner, the monsters’ origin is necessarily speculative (they apparently arrived via meteorite, FYI). American directors have gotten away with this kind of corner cutting for decades, so it’s not really a valid gripe here.

And believe it or not, The Great Wall is fairly engaging. For starters, you’ve got elaborately kitted-out troops — red for archers, blue for bungee-fighting warrior women, led by Commander Lin (Jing Tian) — which are a welcome change from the usual drab palette of American action movies, and there’s some fairly ingenious (if wholly implausible) weapons tech. There's also an unexpected amount of humor, with Damon and Pascal (the latter especially) breaking each other’s balls with surprising frequency and to decent effect. This serves two purposes: both helping bring in American audiences and subtly emphasizing China’s superiority in the cultural divide.

Because make no mistake, this may be the most expensive Chinese movie to date, not to mention the biggest Chinese-Hollywood co-production ever, but the sensibility distinctly favors the first half of that partnership. William and Tovar are, at first anyway, little better than shabby thieves intent on profiting off the discoveries of their hosts. Lin (Jing Tian will be the breakout star of this, if there is one), as the embodiment of the cultured East, must teach her uncouth European visitors the true meaning of honor and trust. It’s also very chaste. Keep your filthy paws off her silky drawers, buddy: There are monsters that need fightin’.

If there’s a real complaint (and isn’t there always?), it’s that Zhang is too restrained. This is a movie depicting thousands of rainbow-hued soldiers fighting thousands of slavering alien demonspawn, and aside from a handful of elaborate action pieces (were you aware the Chinese were the first to master balloon technology? The more you know…), there’s little of the scale we’d expect (though Lin’s “Crane Corps” is an inspired touch). Pascal gets all the best lines, possibly because he doesn't have to work around whatever the hell accent Damon is attempting. Meanwhile, Hong Kong legend Andy Lau is mostly wasted as the Nameless Order’s chief strategist.

As for the oft-mentioned “whitewashing” controversy, Damon is clearly the lead, but by making William subordinate to Lin (who ends up commanding the entire force), Zhang and company missed an opportunity to pull a Big Trouble in…Bigger China. Get rid of the "gunpowder plot," make William a clear sidekick and give us more of Lin’s BASE-jumping spear fu, please.

It’s said that if you always expect the worst, you’re never disappointed. Certainly, diminished expectations might be at work, but it turns out The Great Wall is neither great (irony!) nor terrible. It strains to avoid offending just about anyone, and even goes out of its way to make a plea for tolerance and understanding (juxtapose that with any recent Presidential press conference). The movie, like the Wall itself, simply *is,* and there are definitely worse ways to spend 104 minutes.

Like, say, watching a Presidential press conference.
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar