I’m a huge creature feature fan. I have a very clear memory from back in the day of rushing home in the late afternoon to catch Eddie Driscoll and “The Great Money Movie”, a weekday movie showcase that usually ran with a different theme of oldies each week – Abbot & Costello, aliens, ghosts, etc – and my favorite by far was monster week with the likes of Godzilla, Gamera, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and more. The big boys from Japan were a particular favorite. There’s just something about man vs. over-sized beastie that hits me square in the movie sweet-spot.
With the advent of the video cassette player (yeah, I know, I’m really dating myself right now), there was no end to the monstrous delights to be had, and I was always on the lookout for anything with even a hint of Giganticus Monstroticus in it, whether it was the more high-brow fare of Kong and Godzilla, or bargain basement howlers such as “The Giant Claw” or – and I kid you not – “Attack of the Horny Gorilla”. Trust me, that last one exists. It even stars Joanna Kerns, the mom from the classic sitcom “Growing Pains”, in the damsel-in-distress role. I urge you to check it out. It’s glorious.
Damn, did I just refer to “Growing Pains” as a classic sitcom? I am getting old.
Anyways, in the years (**sob**decades) between then and now, we have had no shortage of big screen monstrosities to ogle at the cinemas. And a lot of them have been pretty damn good. Just off the top of my head, I’d count “Reign of Fire”, “Tremors”, “The Host”, and “Pitch Black” among some of my favorites. The monster movie may not be as prolific as it was back in the 50s and 60s, but on the occasion they do, I’m always waiting with open arms to give them a warm and hearty welcome.
Which brings me to the latest offering, Legendary Pictures’ “The Great Wall”. There’s been a lot in the press and online leading up to its release stateside, much of it to do with the movie being the most expensive Chinese film ever, and a whole lot more of it to do with Matt Damon being cast in the lead role. The phrases “white-washing” and “white savior” have been bandied since its initial announcement and the first trailer release, and I’m just going to make one comment on that move on. Here we go. Ahem! If you seriously think, after watching this movie, that Matt Damon has no place in this film, that it is an insult to China and the Chinese, and that it is a result of rampant racism within the movie industry, the only thing I can say is that I recommend you pull your head out of your ass and stick it in the sand where it belongs. Okay? All clear? Great, let’s move on.
“The Great Wall” opens with our hero William (Matt Damon) as part of a rag-tag group of mercenaries sneaking their way through the deserts of China in search of the legendary “black powder” (yep, gun powder). Convinced that this wondrous powder will bring them the riches they have always dreamed of, they’re not about to let anything get in their way. However, after stopping to camp for the night, something big, mean, and ugly does manage to get in their way, and what transpires ain’t pretty. When the smoke clears, and with only his Spanish buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal – or as I like to call him, Mr. Squishy Head from “Game of Thrones”) by his side, William hightails it out of there and eventually finds himself at a **spoiler alert** really, really big wall. And there’s a big Chinese army there as well, one that is very suspicious of the smelly, dirty foreigners. It turns out that big ugly thing they ran into before may actually be just one of thousands that might show up at any moment. Yep, things are going to get monstrous.
I’m not going to delve too deeply into what little story there is here, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what comes next. It isn’t long before our hero teams up with his new Chinese buddies – in particular Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) – to battle a horde of giant, reptilian-looking monsters who appear every few decades to try and breach the wall and devour China. And that’s about it. Really. That’s the story. If you’re looking for depth, you aren’t going to find it here, this is about as bare bones as it gets.
“The Great Wall” is a beautiful movie to look at. That shouldn’t come as a surprise since it’s directed by Chinese great Yimou Zhang, the visionary filmmaker behind many renowned films such as “Raise the Red Lantern”, “The Road Home”, “House of Flying Daggers”, and a personal favorite of mine, 2002’s “Hero” starring Jet Li. The production design is top-notch and a wonder to behold. The opening scenes at the wall grabbed me immediately – the towering heights, the attention to detail in the architecture (inside and out), and particularly the soldiers’ appearance. You see, each unit has their own distinctive armor, marked by differences in design and color, and it really is something to behold to see them assemble and head into war. My personal favorites were the blue clad ladies of the “Crane Corps” whose sole job is to, essentially, bungee jump off the wall with spears directly into the waves of monsters trying to claw their way to the top. Glorious. As this particular scene happens early on in the film, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited. This movie was off to a great start. The initial confrontation with the monsters is masterfully executed and promises that – if this is just the beginning – we must be in for one hell of a ride.
Alas, that was not to be. The action scenes are great, but as soon as things slow down, a glaring problem quickly becomes apparent. I already said the story was bare-bones, but I can often forgive that. However, to be brutally honest, this script is just badly written and deadly dull. The dialogue in particular is just “blah!”, and the characters are clichéd cut-outs from a thousand other action movies. After such a great opening, I was surprised at how fast the wind was snatched out of my sails. If there isn’t any fighting going on, the movie slows down to a snail’s pace, and you spend a lot of that time praying that one of the beasties will appear out of nowhere and bite someone’s noggin off just to get something going. There were so many ways this could have been remedied. For example, at one point in the film we are given a pretty strong indication as to the origin of the beasties, and it’s a pretty interesting idea. And what do they do with it? Absolutely nothing. It’s never referred to again. That really should have been explored further and could have given the story some pretty cool avenues to explore and take advantage of. But, hey, what do I know?
And as good as these actors are, when you are given crap to work with, there’s not a whole lot you can do. For the most part, everyone just stands around looking stiff, delivering their bland lines in monotones while trying to look scared. Trust me, it doesn’t work. And that includes Matt Damon. Andy Lau and Tian Jing obviously have the goods in the acting department, but they don’t really make much of an impact here either. The only one who looked to have a bit of life in him was Pedro Pascal, but he too eventually falls victim to the same script problems that hobble his co-stars. And what the hell was Willem Dafoe doing in this? Honestly, his small role could have been played by anyone and it hurts to see such a great actor waste his time and talent on it.
I think “The Great Wall” is best described as a movie of fits and starts. There is a lot of good stuff here. When the action kicks in, it grabs you, and it is a beautiful sight. There are scenes in this I will not soon forget – the ladies of Crane Corps leaping from the wall, fiery catapults pummeling stampeding beasties, the ingenious weapons atop the walls and hidden within, ancient hot-air balloons taking to the skies, a gorgeous tower of stained glass, scores and scores of hungry beasties swarming over a city. Love it, love it, love it. It just breaks my heart that the action had to be broken up by some of the laziest writing I’ve seen in a good while. Almost every single problem in this can be blamed on the script.
And what was up with the editing in the second half of the movie? Seriously, I think a good portion of the latter parts of this movie ended up on the cutting room floor, it just seemed very choppy. There had been a decent enough flow at the beginning, but things just go wonky in that final stretch. It almost felt as though everyone just said, “Screw it, let’s just get through this last bit as quick as possible”. Sigh.
“The Great Wall” makes me sad because it is a movie that I want to and should love, it even has bits that I do, but I cannot love it completely because the filmmakers made the catastrophic mistake of not putting into the script the same effort that went into the design. If they had, this could have been a thing of awe and wonder.
Instead, I am only left to wonder ‘what if’?
Starring Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau and Tian Jing
Written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy
Directed by Yimou Zhang