Movie Review: Universal sells China “The Great Wall”

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We will see worse movies this year than “The Great Wall.” But we won’t sit through one more cynical.

It’s Chinese pandering — pure agitprop — packaged as Hollywood poppycock. I can hear the pitch now — “Get your MESSAGE out! Chinese ‘order,’ Chinese know-how, China as the hope of civilization!’ Monsters and heroes, special effects and costumes, we’ll build a DIGITAL Great Wall — you provide the money, the thousands of extras, a few local stars, one of your great directors!

“And the money! Did I mention the money?”

The People’s Republicans probably never knew what hit them.

Seriously, if you’d wagered me that you could throw a big budget, director Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero,””House of Flying Daggers”), screenwriter Tony “Michael Clayton” Gilroy and Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe at a movie and have it come out this silly, I’d have taken that bet.

But many hands made this mess, many more credited writers strained to get their Chinese image-polishing in.

Damon and Pedro Pascal play two Medieval soldiers of fortune, the last survivors of an expedition bent on trading for China’s “Black Powder.” That would be the world’s first Weapon of Mass Destruction — gunpowder.

But on their way, they’ve been attacked by a beast — green, reptilian, a Wildebeast with claws for feet and a cavernous, toothy mouth. When the Chinese — a cultural model of order, organization, mass discipline, high tech and color-coded haute couture armor — capture them, they’re intrigued. Spies? Probably.

Still, the English archer-swordsman William (Damon) killed a Tao Tei monster. They’re impressed. They let the English mercenary live and keep his Spanish sidekick around for the banter.

“I haven’t surrendered in a while.”

“Follow my lead. It’ll come to you.”

The Westerners are most impressed by this wall. What on Earth could they need something this big for?

Alien monster invasions! Every sixty years!

wall3A whole civilization, a great bureaucracy and a vast army have been organized around fighting this menace. The Nameless Order raises warriors — female and male — to battle the beasts. Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) gives the order of battle when the hordes wash against the wall like a tidal wave.

“Crane Squad!” Those are lance-armed women bungee jumping up and down off the wall, poking the Tao Tei. “Death Squad!” And so forth.

Meanwhile, their guests are taken into the confidence of an earlier Western prisoner (Willem Dafoe) who wants their help escaping. There’s money to be made by the first to get back West with the “black powder.”

The script posits China as a bulwark of civilization, the only defense against slaughter by monsters. OK. So why the supernatural silliness? Because China served that function in history, battling the Mongols.

Oh. Right. The Mongols overran the pre-People’s Republican kingdoms before turning West and laying waste to much of Western, Indian and Islamic civilization. There’s no hopeful ending provided by history.

This is basically a zombie movie, a “Dark Ages World War Z,” borrowing imagery and story-beats such as the “evolving”  Tao Tei piling on top of each other, like ants, to scale the wall, just as in “Z.”

The moral of the story — “greed” destroys mankind, “A man must learn to trust before he can be trusted,” seem like addenda to Mao’s “Little Red Book.” The Chinese image here is of self-sacrificing masses — not a coward in the bunch — giving their all to the common good. All that’s missing is a patriotic song. Perhaps that’s in the Chinese version.

The only acting in this thing comes from the light touch Damon and “Game of Thrones” star Pascal have with their exchanges. Tian Jing is a slip of a thing with runway-ready hair and a toothy scowl she flashes in combat.

The Great Dafoe, like way too many people involved in this, was here for the check.

Yimou’s earliest films were filled with coded criticism of the totalitarian state he worked in. Here, he’s just cashing in, rolling his eyes and letting Hollywood have the “credit.”

But all this credit-sharing/buck-passing is no way to earn big bucks. Perhaps its Chinese box office covered the budget.

For the rest of the world, here’s the only value judgement that matters.

It’s as bad as the trailers promised it would be.

1half-star
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence

Cast: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Pedro PascalWillem Dafoe, Andy LauHanyu Zhang

Credits:Directed by Zhang Yimou, script by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz. A Universal release.

Running time: 1:36

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