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‘The Great Wall’ not quite great

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Damon-led action epic intriguing, but uneven

It’s no secret that Hollywood has taken to making films with one eye planted firmly on the global box office. Gone are the days of the domestic-only blockbuster; the truly huge numbers rely heavily on how a film plays in overseas markets.

“The Great Wall” might be the most synergistic example of the phenomenon thus far. Helmed by Chinese director Yimou Zhang, the legendary director behind aesthetic masterpieces like “House of Flying Daggers” – this offering marks his first-ever English-language production – the film stars Matt Damon (“Jason Bourne”) in what is being billed as the largest film ever shot entirely in China.

Unfortunately, while there are certainly some positives here, the film never quite reaches the epic heights to which it clearly aspires. Despite some impressive set pieces, solid effects work and some good performances, “The Great Wall” too often seems to crumble under its own weight.

Damon (along with his vaguely Irish accent) play William, a warrior making his way through the hill country of ancient China. Along with his fellow mercenaries – chief among them the Spanish-speaking Tovar (Pedro Pascal, TV’s “Narcos”) - William is following whispered rumors of a “black powder” that is the key to creating the most fearsome weapons that the world has ever known. Along the way, they are attacked by a mysterious creature – one that murders the rest of their band before William can kill it.

In making their escape from a band of bandits, the two find themselves confronted with the titular Great Wall, guarded by a thousands-strong army. Despite initial misgivings, the wall’s defenders take the pair in, impressed by William’s triumph over the creature. The defenders are collectively known as the Nameless Order, made up of five factions – Bear Troop, Crane Troop, Eagle Troop, Tiger Troop and Deer Troop – each with a different military specialty.

The creature is revealed to be what the Order calls a Tao Tei – reptilian monsters that engage in an all-out assault on the Wall every 60 years in an effort to feed their queen, so that they might reproduce in sufficient numbers to spread beyond China and into the world beyond. The first skirmish leads to William and Tovar proving themselves in battle and earning the trust of General Shao (Hanyu Zhang, “Wine Wars”), chief strategist Wang (Andy Lau, “Mission Milano” and Lin Mae (Tian Jing, “The Man from Macau”), the latter serving as commander of the acrobatic Crane Troop.

The two also attract the attention of Ballard (Willem Dafor, “Padre”) a former mercenary whose own quest for black powder left him trapped behind the Wall for 25 years. Ballard’s got plans of his own for William and Tovar – plans that don’t include sticking around to try and fight the seemingly unending and invincible hordes of the Tao Tei.

William is left with a choice – to flee or to fight. Fleeing might save his skin, but fighting might give him the chance to become the man he has always dreamed of being … assuming he survives.

“The Great Wall,” like its namesake, is undeniably big. But while it is epic in terms of sheer size, that size never quite translates. Instead, we get a film that isn’t quite as exciting as it probably should be. There’s an oddly lackadaisical quality to the pacing; the stretches between set pieces tend to plod. That lag is made all the more apparent when laid alongside the well-done, yet somewhat sterile action sequences.

Yimou Zhang’s reputation as a visual stylist is definitely well-earned; there’s a lush intensity to some of these scenes that is visceral and striking (one climactic scene involving a tower and stained glass is particularly breathtaking). The effects work – both in terms of practical stunts and CGI monsters – is quite good as well, with some thrilling moments throughout.

And yet … it doesn’t click.

It’s tempting to lay this at the feet of Damon – he is the star, after all – but other than his kind-of-terrible accent, he’s pretty good. He’s in standard Action Damon mode (and I mean that in the best way possible). Pascal gives solid sidekick, with a fair dash of comic relief sprinkled into the mix. Tian Jing is a remarkable screen presence, mining surprising depth from what could have been a single note. Hanyu Zhang and Andy Lau are both megastars in Asia; they give performances that certainly don’t belie their reputations – they’re really good. Dafoe’s is a thankless part – and a little goes a long way – but he also does solid work.

Really, the biggest issue with “The Great Wall” is the script. The screenplay was written by Tony Gilroy, Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro from a story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick & Marshall Herkovitz – a talented bunch, but one wonders if perhaps the script suffered from a case of too many cooks. There’s an odd lack of urgency and an occasionally too-simple narrative flow. It’s not bad, per se; it just doesn’t reach the bar set by other aspects of the production. Sadly, while a rising tide lifts all boats, so too does an ebb tide lower them.

“The Great Wall” has a lot going for it and it will undoubtedly go on to massive global box office success. Ultimately, its primary sin is that it could have been – and SHOULD have been – even better.

[3 out of 5]

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