Genre: Adventure and Fantasy Running Time: 1 hr. 43 min.
Release Date: February 17th, 2017 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Yimou Zhang Actors: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Tian Jing, Andy Lau, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin
he Great Wall of China is one of the world’s most enduring wonders, at 1,700 years old and stretching approximately 5,500 miles. It’s winding structure has protected its people from many dangers, both real and legendary. This story pertains to the latter. And it also has very little to do with the Great Wall itself, which serves as little more than a basic setting adorned with unrecognizable sets. In the course of the film, the technologically advanced fortifications and defense systems resemble pure fantasy more than anything historical.
After riding for six months, William (Matt Damon), Tovar (Pedro Pascal), and a handful of surviving mercenaries trek across the unforgiving deserts of Northern China, in search of the elusive black powder – which few have ever lived to tell about. But before they can rest their eyes upon the fanciful stuff, they’re attacked by a reptilian beast, forcing them to push toward the Great Wall, where they surrender to Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) rather than face the many marauders in the wilderness or the mysterious dragon-like monstrosity. General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) knows of the creature, called the Tao Tei – part of a horde of ravenous aliens birthed from a meteor impact. The general and his soldiers have waited and prepared for 60 years for another siege by the hellions, which must not be allowed to pass the Great Wall into the countryside and the capital of Bianliang, where plentiful humans would provide a copious meal for the queen of the Tao Tei to breed a world-devouring army of minions.
Like something out of “Ran,” the myriad troops of the Great Wall are divided into vivid colors to designate their posts. Almost laughably, however, it’s the bright blue uniforms of the Crane Corps that get the harshest attention, as the squadron is composed entirely of female warriors, who bungee-jump into the thick of the invading creatures (which swarm like the alien insects from “Starship Troopers”) to suffer the first casualties. The Wall itself is alive with mechanical devices that catapult flaming boulders, cut the monsters in half with giant shear-like blades, and house archers or foot soldiers wielding polearms. This leads to numerous, enormous battles, where all sorts of premodern Chinese armaments wreak havoc on blankets of onrushing Tao Tei – curiously designed with eyes in their shoulders and a hierarchy of physical characteristics denoting ranking in relation to the queen (reminiscent of the behemoths of “Pacific Rim”). Although all of these visuals are amusing, none of them break any new ground – nor does the story attempt to do anything engagingly different.
The Nameless Order guards the Wall with their lives, valuing trust over individual gain; no one kills anything without jumping or diving into the air, as if standing still and carefully taking aim are hindrances to precision; austere elder leaders are replaced by young, energetic warriors; the Wall is attacked repeatedly; the enemies prove smarter than anticipated; greed encroaches on heroism; honorable sacrifices are included more for a rousing moment than a necessary diversion; and William starts to fall for the conveniently attractive Commander Lin. This is one of those high fantasy tales that doesn’t need several movies to establish the mythos; everything is formulaic and predictable and simple. There’s no great mystery, overly complicated motivations, or any admirable risks – artistically or thematically. The picture plays it disappointingly safe. Nevertheless, it’s watchable and consistently entertaining, even if it doesn’t provoke any real emotions or present fresh ideas. Perhaps more interesting than the end result – and what already has the majority of media coverage – is the production itself, which set a record for being the most expensive movie shot entirely in China (estimated at around $135 million), and chose Hollywood actors to assume all the biggest roles.
– Mike Massie