Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Great Wall

Every now and then, Yimou Zhang's The Great Wall offers an absolutely brilliant moment of action film making. It will make you gasp and, for a brief moment, you'll forget what film you're watching. Unfortunately, once that moment passes, you have to return back to The Great Wall and remember just how poorly executed the whole thing is. It's nice to have the occasional moment of legitimate awe, especially in an action/fantasy feature, but it isn't enough to save this film from itself.

It's frustrating that The Great Wall isn't even a passing success, let alone a flying one. It's the most expensive film ever to be shot entirely in China, it features one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled on film, and it's arguably the biggest Chinese-US co-production cinema has ever seen. And it's a mess. A complete and total misfire. It looks great, as you'd expect from a film of this scale with a $150m budget, but scratch away that colourful surface and there's little left to be impressed by.

The film's story gets off to a rote start almost immediately. William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are mercenaries in China, hunting for "black powder" (gunpowder). After they kill a bizarre creature that attacks them, they find the Great Wall of China and are taken prisoner by the soldiers there, including Commander Lin (Tian Jing). When Garin and Tovar show the arm of the creature they killed, the Chinese soldiers reveal that the Great Wall was originally built to keep an alien species from attacking civilised China. The creatures stage a full attack once every sixty years and, as luck would have it, the next attack is imminent.

It already feels like a forced way to begin this story - why Garin and Tovar even need to find a creature beforehand is perplexing, it adds little to the plot and there's no reason why they couldn't first see the creatures during the initial attack on the wall - but when the two are forced into battle because a guard just so happens to have lost his keys it becomes almost laughable. There's no logic to the storytelling here, cliches are thrown at you every minute until you're beaten into submission. Garin and Tovar successfully kill a couple of creatures? Let's stage them a round of applause when they next enter the room! I mean, why not? Willem Dafoe also pops up, but his character only seems to exist to justify Commander Lin's ability to speak English - he's then given his own little arc, which distracts from the main story and overstays its welcome.

It doesn't help that every character in this film is as flat as a pancake, forcing every actor to give performances as wooden as a tree. Damon's accent shifts every other scene, Pascal is entirely unable to commit to his almost pointless character, and Jing fails to add any emotional resonance to any of her dialogue. You can't really blame the actors for being this unimpressive when their script is so scattershot, but the fact that none of them really appear to want to be in the film is severely damaging.

Once the characters all stop talking and the film can lean on action sequences and VFX, things even out a bit. It's hardly spectacular, but you feel in safer hands as soon as the alien creatures appear. The film's strongest moment comes right before a battle - the soldiers wait atop the wall, shrouded in mist, listening only to hear when the first creature will strike. It's brilliantly atmospheric and probably the only piece of successful tension The Great Wall is able to craft.

It's also refreshing that, for the most part, The Great Wall relies on long range combat. The first two battle sequences are all predominately centred around long range archers and, in a particularly inspired touch, female soldiers who bungee jump down the wall with swords, get pulled back up, and do the whole thing again. It'll keep you occupied for good fifteen minute bursts, but once the action calms down you have to prepare yourself for another lengthy dud patch. It's hardly an enjoyable feeling.

The production design is generally solid too: the female soldiers' combat armour is blue and vivid, standing out amongst the incessant grey backdrops; the bigger sets are produced with real authenticity, giving a kind of spectacle to some of the quieter scenes; the climactic showdown takes place inside a stained glass pagoda, beautifully illuminating the characters in the full colour spectrum as they climb to the top. Yet, for every production success, there's something to counter it. The editing is frequently choppy and the tonal range is bizarrely off balance throughout. The Great Wall occasionally finds its true self, but those moments are far too rare for it to properly come together.

To Summarise: Impressive production and the occasional inspired moment can only fleetingly distract from The Great Wall's lacklustre acting, uneven pacing and tepid script.

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