Saturday, 18 February 2017

Review: The Great Wall

The Great Wall (3D)
Cert: 12A / 103 mins / Dir. Zhang Yimou / Trailer

We definitely need a word for that thing when you expect a film (book, play, album) to be entertainingly dreadful and it surprisingly isn't, although it's still by no means a great experience. But then, we're in the third week in February, which is traditionally the time when all the big studios release their A-game material*1, so what better than Matt Damon as an unconvincing mercenary trekking across China in search of the mythical and new-fangled Black Powder™ to surreptitiously take back to Europe for nefarious purposes? Except FURIOUS METEOR LIZARDS*2! OMG!

Yes, this is the tale (self-professed 'legend', admittedly) of an early doors extra-terrestrial invasion - the very thing the wall was built for, to keep marauding lizard-beasts out of the capital city. Except the film's opening title-cards tell us that construction took over 1,700 years, and I can't imagine many attackers sitting patiently for over a millennia and a half just saying "it's alright, we'll wait". Unless the Chinese just happened to be building a wall anyway, of course. And it's lucky that the meteor landed on the far-side of that wall really, isnt it? Speaking of which, they might have got it finished sooner (and used a hell of a lot less masonry) if they'd built the thing in a straight line, surely? It's all over the place. But y'know, it'd be foolhardy to list logical inconsistencies in a movie where Matt Damon's character is walking around with an American accent in the 13th century*3. Foolhardy lists are just my thing.

So, the film. It's not terrible. But it could be far, far better. It constantly feels like a crass Hollywood reboot of a folk tale, despite only basically having Damon, Pablo Pascal and Willem Dafoe*4. representing the studio-system. There's the feeling throughout that it'd be much stronger with an entirely Chinese cast and completely subtitled dialogue. Although the screenplay has Damon's character as 'a mercenary/trader', there's not any pressing need for him to be 'a westerner'. In fact, the more of a mistrusted-yet-helpful outsider he is, the more objectionable his character becomes. I'd like to say he charms his way over that hurdle, but I'd be incorrect in doing so.

But the audience aren't here for cultural appropriation and inelegant scriptwriting, they want monsters! And monsters they will get, at wearyingly regular intervals. The mindless hive-beasts are richly textured, but feel weightless against the impressive set-dressing and costumes on display. Visually, the film's battle-scenes borrow heavily from World War Z and the Resident Evil movies, like some bizarre celebration of mediocrity.

This happened to be my first 3D screening of 2017, although more by chance (read: convenient performance times) than agenda. Cinematographers Stuart Dryburgh and Xiaoding Zhao do a sturdy job in reminding us what a dreadful combination hand-held cameras and 3D are. And in a bid to get the money's worth out of the stereoscopic conversion, arrows, axes, daggers and shields come flying at the audience with alarming frequency. Which would be fine if the 3D wasn't used so badly elsewhere. One scene will be sharp and have a naturalistic depth of field, then the next will be ghosted all over and have blurred central characters. By which I mean visually blurred. Narratively, they're more bland.

It also seems odd that a film which has a gleeful battle scene every fifteen minutes takes a moment in the middle to start moralising about Black Powder™ and how it will be 'the ruin of mankind', in a cackhanded foreshadowing of the guns and explosives which will be developed from it. This is already a movie about a civilisation who (in this telling of the tale) build a wall to keep out an enemy that they fear and view as mindless, savage beasts. Yes, this in 2017 of all years. The screenplay doesn't see fit to look into that box of guilt, oddly. I imagine that's down to it having six writers.

In and of itself, The Great Wall is a fine fable with classical roots, albeit a one essentially ruined by unrestrained CGI and the mere presence of Matt Damon. The film has has aspirations it can't live up to all the while it's striving to be a mainstream Hollywood actioner. Like some a cigar-chomping film producer's gone "Sure, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was fun, but you know what people are liking more than that? Characters talking in God-Damn English, that's what! Also, why is the dragon hiding for the whole movie? Our version will have thousands of dragons! Right there! Shrieking! Every time Matt God-Damn Damon turns around! BOOM!".

Still, it's better than Assassins Creed.

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Those Resident Evil films.
And that's not meant to come off as snarky as it probably sounds, although at the same time it totally is

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
Why not? This film's impact is almost entirely dependent on the size of screen on which it's presented.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Given that it's ultimately bankrolled by Universal, probably yes.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
For the ones I'm familiar with? No.
For everybody else? I hope not

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
I won't.

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Inexplicably not.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: This has got Willem Dafoe in it, and he was in that Platoon alongside Forest 'Gerrera' Whitaker.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Yes, this is sarcasm. No, don't write in. [ BACK ]

*2 When I first saw the trailer, I assumed these creatures would be dragons. After all, that would fit with the whole Chinese-legend aesthetic. It immediately occurred to me of course, that you wouldn't build an eighty-foot wall (the sections we see in the film are much taller than the actual wall, like that matters) to keep out a creature which can fly. Luckily, the many screenwriters seem to have pooled that idea between them, so we get land-bound lizards, instead. [ BACK ]

*3 I may be mistaken here (and I sincerely hope I am), but it seems like every twenty minutes or so Damon attempts what I think is supposed to be an Irish accent, indicative of his character's apparently European roots. It's hilarious if only because he clearly doesn't bother the rest of the time. Although it's also hilarious because of how fucking bad it is. [ BACK ]

*4 An veteran actor who has very little to do, yet still looks increasingly embarrassed each time he appears on-screen. And rightly so. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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