Matt Damon apparently passed up starring in Manchester by the Sea to make Yimou Zhang's (Hero) The Great Wall, a dull, bombastic, CGI-filled action movie about alien monsters that attack the Great Wall of China in the AD 1000s. Like an uneasy mix of Zhang's previous epics and Starship Troopers without the gore and sex, The Great Wall lacks a consistent theme, cohesive action or memorable characters. Zhang throws so much at the screen that I wanted to close my eyes in submission. There are some beautiful shots scattered about the film, but the monsters and human characters are so generic that I did not care at all what happened to anyone on screen. The Great Wall runs a long, sloppy 103 minutes and is an embarrassment for all involved.
That Universal and others spent $150 million on this film at first seems ludicrous, but given China's emergence as a global box office leader, particularly for sci-fi/action/fantasy mash-ups, the number seems more reasonable. We are a decade past the Chinese import boom that saw movies like Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers find huge American audiences. I'd blame the weak reception for The Great Wall on the changing times if it were a better movie. Had this movie been shot ten years ago with the same script, it likely would have been met with the same disinterest. The Great Wall is simply too cartoonish to resonate. The revisionist history is too goofy and muddled, and the filmmakers keep each character at arm's length to avoid resonating with the audience.
Things start out OK: Several European mercenaries, including Damon's William Garin, travel through China searching for gunpowder. One night, the men are attacked by an unseen monster but manage to slice off a piece of its flesh. The survivors are later captured by Chinese soldiers at the Great Wall and introduced to a secret military sect known as the Nameless Order that is led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu). Garin presents the monster's flesh to the Nameless Order, and quickly realizes that the soldiers are all too familiar with its origin. Turns out that the Nameless Order is tasked with protecting the world from monstrous alien creatures that return to China every 60 years. Garin, Shao and local soldiers Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) then join forces to battle the creatures attacking the Wall.
There is not much positive to say about The Great Wall. Damon is terrible with an inauthentic accent and generally bored demeanor throughout. The dialogue is laughable, the effects are lousy, and both the action and romance fizzle. The fight sequences and weapon play should have been exciting given the director's pedigree, but they fall flat. This is a film ripe for parody and criticism, and it offers little, if any, entertainment value. Even the reliable Willem Dafoe, here playing a longtime prisoner of sorts, is wasted. The sole purpose of his character seems to be providing useless exposition and backstory for the audience. Aside from a couple of impressive shots and decent production design, The Great Wall is a multi-cultural bust.
The 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is strong, with excellent detail and clarity. Colors are bold and never bleed, and blacks are inky, with great shadow detail. Wide shots are deep and crisp, and close-ups reveal intimate textures on faces, costumes and fabrics. There is some minimal noise and aliasing, but this is otherwise a nice transfer.
The Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which I sampled as a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD mix, is excellent. The film is not good, but the sound design is impressive. This mix offers abundant effects pans and directional dialogue. Music, dialogue and effects are layered appropriately, and both the surrounds and subwoofer get a vigorous workout. No complaints here. The disc also includes lossy Spanish and French dubs and English SDH, Spanish and French subs.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy and both iTunes and UltraViolet HD digital copies. The discs are packed in a standard case that is wrapped in a slipcover. Extras include Deleted and Extended Scenes (6:49 total/HD); Matt Damon in China (2:45/HD); Working with Director Yimou Zhang (3:06/HD); The Great Wall: Visual Effects (3:06/HD); Man vs. Monster (9:22 total/HD); Weapons of War (3:17/HD); and Designing a Spectacular World (3:34/HD).
Chinese director Yimou Zhang and Matt Damon's collaboration is a terrible, dull mix of science fiction and revisionist historical action. The Great Wall offers lousy effects, boring characters and monotonous action, and is a complete waste of all the talent involved. Skip It.