The Great Wall

Year: 2016
Production Co: Legendary East
Studio: Universal
Director: Yimou Zhang
Writer: Carlo Bernard/Doug Miro/Tony Gilroy/Max Brooks
Cast: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau

Like a lot of movies, the story behind this film's creation is much more interesting than the bland superhero/warfighting story on screen.

For years Hollywood has been trying to court Chinese authorities by using their stars and locations or setting pivotal scenes on their shores, all while avoiding anything politically critical or sexualised in order to get films released there and get access to a billion new moviegoers.

But this is the first film that seems built from the ground up by a committee whose entire reason for being was Hollywood's aspirational relationship with China. I like to think audiences sniffed the cynicism a mile away and it pretty much failed dismally, returning only twice its budget and – according to Wikipedia – losing up to $75m, doubtlessly after a very expensive publicity push in China.

They took a white Hollywood star (Matt Damon), a revered Chinese director (Zhang Yimou), and a story centred around one of China's most iconic cultural landmarks (hence the title), cobbled a pretty dumb monster movie around it and unleashed it to sink like a stone.

The bland story is about two mercenaries making a living in the deserts of the Chinese wilderness in search of newly-developed gunpowder, William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) who are set upon by a monster late one night at camp, which William injures and sees off.

They make their way to the Great Wall and are taken prisoner by the untrusting authorities that man the great battlement, and the pair soon learn why. A race of pretty stupid CGI monster alien things attack once every 60 years, and over the ages the locals have developed several elite fighting forces to repel them. If they breach the wall and reach the capital, it's game over.

After William's defeat of the monster, they reluctantly release him to help fight when the monsters arrive a week early, and although there are heavy losses he earns their trust, particularly of the newly minted army leader Lin Mae (Tian Jing).

There's a bit of political intrigue thanks to the other European mercenary (Willem Dafoe) who's been captive since arriving 25 years before and sees William and Tovar as his ticket out, but honestly you spend the whole time waiting for the next big CGI battle (which you've seen a million times anyway).

There are some slightly inventive visual ideas like the soldiers who bungee jump into the enemy hordes below (although the movie does that idea to death) and Damon's too good an actor not to give his character an edge that's slightly better than the pap on the page (although his accent veers all over the place), but none of it's enough to save the film from being a crushingly dull VFX adventure.

Aside from the boring plot, the entire problem with The Great Wall is the impossible balance of the social politics behind it. On one hand you're using the same offensive Great White Hope archetype from ages past of the European colonist coming in to tell the local coolies how to do things properly. But the project never would have flown in the intended market without a a global-level famous face headlining it, and that automatically means a (white) Hollywood star.

A better movie might keep you from repeatedly musing on that dichotomy through the entire thing, but this isn't it.

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