International action movie ‘The Great Wall’ represents a failed compromise

The Great Wall.

Two stars

The Great Wall Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

Thanks to the massive growth of the Chinese box office (many predict that China will surpass North America as the world’s largest theatrical market within the next few years), Hollywood studios are increasingly conscious of marketing to Chinese audiences, along with other international territories. And while China’s movie industry is expanding rapidly, Chinese filmmakers still don’t have the resources available in Hollywood. Thus is born an entirely market-focused movie like The Great Wall, carefully composed to provide an equally inoffensive balance for both the Chinese and American markets, and ending up with the worst of both worlds.

There are lead roles for an American movie star (Matt Damon, as an 11th-century European trader in China) and a Chinese movie star (Jing Tian, as a Chinese warrior and leader of an elite fighting order), along with supporting roles for recognizable veteran actors from the U.S. (Willem Dafoe) and China (Andy Lau). There’s a script by a team of Hollywood writers, and direction from one of China’s most acclaimed filmmakers (Zhang Yimou). Everything is so measured and timid that there’s no room for creativity, even with some impressive talents involved. Zhang in particular is almost entirely wasted behind the camera, bringing virtually none of his visual flair to a movie that’s drowning in low-rent CGI.

Zhang has directed both sensitive dramas (Raise the Red Lantern, To Live) and sumptuous martial-arts epics (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), but the characters in The Great Wall are barely one-dimensional, and the action rarely achieves anything approaching the color-coordinated beauty of Zhang’s previous historical action movies. That’s partially because instead of fighting each other, the characters are fighting generic-looking monsters, which are swarming the actual Great Wall of China and threatening to overrun the world.

The vaguely dinosaur-like monsters are explained in very loose terms, and despite its numerous experienced writers, the movie has virtually no interest in world-building or backstory. Damon’s William is a great archer and a bit of a rogue, and Jing’s Commander Lin is honorable and open-minded. Although there’s a romantic undercurrent to their interactions, the actors have no chemistry, and Damon (with a terrible, constantly varying accent) gives one of the worst performances of his career. Occasionally Zhang comes up with an inventive action scenario (spear-wielding female warriors who essentially bungee-jump off the wall provide some eye-catching moments), but for the most part the action sequences are flat, especially in the horrendous, CGI-drenched finale. Released two months ago to mediocre returns in China, The Great Wall is a money-driven compromise that seems designed to please no one.

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