The Great Wall isn’t great and I doubt anyone’s surprised. The trailer for this film looked awful, showcasing awkward line delivery and rather straightforward character arcs. While I am going to spend a fair amount of page bashing this film, I want to say up front this movie isn’t apocalyptically bad. I was expecting it to be, but it does offer some surprises.
Director Zhang Yimou, who’s been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film three times, has a solid resume, producing most of his work in China and Hong Kong. Known for his color palette and cinematography, Yimou demonstrates these attributes in The Great Wall, though neither to the quantity or splendor most of us would prefer. A drama would have been nice but Yimou can’t prevent himself from being a storyteller that wants to awe and shock people through vision rather than capable filmmaking or a conscious script.
Although, I will give him credit for avoiding what I felt would be this film’s biggest hurdle: taking itself too seriously. There are plenty of films I want to take themselves seriously and don’t. It’s unfortunate that’s how it turned out but sometimes it works itself out in the end. Concurrently, there are directors that want to turn everything they do into the most dire of affairs in every aspect, to the point their ambition hinders their product. This is often the case when I sit down for a foreign film. I am well aware that all foreign films are not like this. I just seem to find all of the ones that are, for some reason. All of this goes to say, I was thankful when Matt Damon and his compadre started cracking jokes. That moment of recognition, when you know your film doesn’t have the gravitas to pull off the compelling, is uber-important.
Yimou doesn’t give up on the seriousness, nor do I think he should have, instead trying to balance the seesaw of tension by himself between what may be too much humor and what needs a laugh dropped on top of it to simmer everything down a little. While I commend the effort he puts in to try to keep this ship straight, it’s as difficult as it sounds and he can’t pull it off, mostly because his script writers are sawing off half the contraption with some straight invalid characters (I still, after more than a week, can’t explain why Willem Dafoe is in this) and nauseating line delivery. Watch the trailer above and try to tell me Damon’s “We came to trade” line belongs in any movie. Try to make a semi-decent argument and put it in the comments. That line in the trailer might be the iceberg to the film, honestly. Don’t get me wrong, this ship takes plenty of hits along the way, but this behemoth is the one that puts her down for good.
Which means, most of the talking in this film isn’t relevant. Usually, when I review a foreign film, I have to talk about the already inherent disadvantage it’s at because of the need for subtitles. This film doesn’t have that wall, though it does have the wall of relevancy to face up against and doesn’t fare so well with that. Some narration is needed for the organization of the plot but otherwise, a majority of the dialogue could be removed and you’d still get as far with the story as you would with it in. The characters just don’t mean anything. Yes, we get a few chuckles early as I mentioned above, but there’s a substantial difference between a one-liner machine and a character and we don’t even have a machine here. More like a one-liner chicken having a seizure in the middle of a species war.
Some of the action sequences are attractive enough to hold one’s attention though nowhere near the command of focus a movie that essentially doesn’t have characters requires. Some are plain illogical but at least it warrants a laugh. There’s one scene in particular where Damon’s buddy throws an ax off target and Damon shoots it three separate times with three separate arrows to correct its trajectory. If you enjoy this type of content, you might find yourself halfway to the road of enjoyment. You just need to decide how large the chasm is between badass and stupid.
There are some nice shots from the cinematographer here, with Yimou no doubt having some influence given his past experience as one. There’s also some knowledge passed on about the Great Wall that peaked my interest and shows you some of the inner workings of one of the world’s greatest wonders, though a quick look on Wikipedia may disappoint you either a lot or a little, depending on how much of it you believed.
Despite how underwhelming this film is, I am glad to see it do well at the box office (thus far, $320 million on a $150 million budget) because it means more foreign films will get money thrown at them and, more importantly, it means a real shot at the world spotlight.
Once again, if you’re new to my blog, I’ve always ranked movies on a scale of 0-100 (I don’t know why, I just always have). Here’s the grading scale.
80-89 It was a pretty good movie and definitely one worth seeing, but it doesn’t quite scratch my top ten percentile. (Olympus Has Fallen, The Cable Guy, The Cabin in the Woods, Tears of the Sun, Edge of Tomorrow)
50-59 This movie isn’t intolerable but it’s not blowing my mind either. I’m trying really hard to get some sort of enjoyment out of this. (Robin Hood, Underworld, The Do-Over, X-Men: Apocalypse, D-Tox/Eye See You)
40-49 This movie is just mediocre. It’s not doing anything other than the bare minimal, so morbidly boring that sometimes I’m actually angry I watched this. (Underworld: Evolution, Batman & Robin, Bloodsport, War, The Ridiculous 6)
30-39 Definitely worse than mediocre, the 30′s ironically define the 1930′s, full of depression, lack of accomplishments, poverty and just so dumb. (Most Likely to Die, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Crow: City of Angels, Centurion, Planet of the Apes)
0-19 Watching this movie resulted in one or more of the following: seizure, loss of brain cells, falling asleep/unconsciousness, feel you wasted your time/day, accomplished nothing for you, left the movie knowing less about it then you did going into it, constantly asking yourself why you came to see this movie, or near-death experience. In short, staring at a wall was just as entertaining as watching this movie. This movie deserved a sticker or a label that said, “WARNING: EXTREME AMOUNT OF SUCKAGE.” (The Coed and the Zombie Stoner, The Forbidden Dimensions, Cyborg, Outcast, Sabotage)
My score for The Great Wall: 52.
Great legends have great characters: Achilles, Leonidas, Robin Hood, King Arthur. The Great Wall doesn’t have one and that’s what drags this film down more than anything. All we can hope for is a better movie in the next worldwide chapter of Chinese cinema.