[Screen It]


(2017) (Matt Damon, Tian Jing) (PG-13)

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Action: Two 12th century European mercenaries find themselves among Chinese military forces trying to protect the Great Wall from increasing attacks by hordes of massive monsters.
William Garin (MATT DAMON) and Pero Tovar (PEDRO PASCAL) are 12th century European mercenaries who've traveled to China in search of a new weapon they've heard about but never seen -- black powder. After escaping from armed men, their small group comes under attack by some sort of monster, with only William and Pero surviving, thanks to the former managing to kill the beast. But when they're chased again by armed men, they end up confronted by the more heavily armed forces of The Nameless Order.

They're a military forced led by General Shao (HANYU ZHANG) and his right-hand lieutenant, Commander Lin Mae (TIAN JING), that's been tasked with protecting The Great Wall -- a massive and tall structure that stretches for thousands of miles -- from an opponent that apparently attacks around every sixty years. Unluckily for William and Pero who are now prisoners there, it's time for the arrival of the much-feared Tao Teis, huge dinosaur-like monsters with highly adaptive intelligence, that are ruled by a queen creature.

When the attack occurs, another European man, Ballard (WILLEM DAFOE), who's been there for twenty-five years frees the two mercenaries who engage in battle alongside their Chinese counterparts, mainly to save their own hides. But their actions and heroics aren't lost on Shao or Lin, and the two are accepted into the militarized community but, like Ballard, will never be free to leave.

With strategist Wang (ANDY LAU) realizing that a large magnet William possessed seems to make the monsters docile, Lin and the rest try to come up with a new battle plan using that intel. As they await their chance to use that in their next defense of the wall, William must decide whether to stay and battle with them or covertly escape with Pero and Ballard.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Ever since the late, great Caveman Og discovered that putting a bunch of rocks atop other rocks could be used not only for some privacy from the stares of other cave people (what with him being so handsome) but also protection from human and animal adversaries, people have built and used walls in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors for a variety of purposes.

Notwithstanding the one that our current POTUS wants to build on our southern national border, the greatest of them all has long been, natch, the Great Wall in China. It's so great, in fact, that English antiquary William Stukeley wrote in 1754 that it could possibly even be seen from the moon.

That claim, while still popular, has pretty much been debunked by astronauts both on the moon and in orbit. What's not in dispute, however, is that China built the monumental structure to keep out raids and invasions of the various nomadic groups over the centuries. But is that all it was really keeping out?

That's the high concept premise behind "The Great Wall," a period fantasy flick set in 12th century China where the "bad guys" aren't Eurasian nomads. Instead, they're some sort of quadrupedal, reptile like beasts far larger than rhinos and ruled by a single queen who seems to have it out for humans.

But only to the extent of attacking every sixty years, because, you know, invasions are hard work, especially with that pesky wall that needs scaling. As luck would have it, dear reader, it's that time of the century and thus you're just in time for the attack. And bad luck means that two European mercenaries -- who've been poking around China for months looking for some newfangled weapon known as black powder -- have wandered (okay, actually been chased) up to the titular structure at just the right (or wrong) time.

And thus we have another cinematic tale where the white man (in this case, one played by Matt Damon) has to help the local non-white characters out of their current (but period) pickle. To be fair, however, this film -- directed by Zhang Yimou from a screenplay by Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy -- is part Chinese production (rather than straight-out Hollywood), and apparently the most expensive one to date with a filmmaking tab reportedly landing in the $150 million range. So, Damon's international bankability is possibly more a matter of commerce than another example of the old white savior complex.

Whatever the case, the local Chinese militia -- lead by General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and his right-hand (and English speaking) lieutenant, Lin Mae (Tian Jing) -- need all the help they can get, what with the monsters -- named the Tao Tei -- being numerous in quantity, fast in speed, capable of absorbing a fair amount of arrows, and highly adaptive in regards to their attack strategy.

As in learning from their past attempts, all of which, along with a queen bee - uh, Tao Tei -- being in charge could lead some or many viewers to believe this is just a variation of "Aliens" where Ripley and other human characters had to fend off some nasty critters. There's even a scene set in a tunnel that, yes, ends in the same sort of self-sacrificial, explosive way.

Alas, and unlike James Cameron's film (and despite all of the money spent here), this one isn't anywhere as innovative, enthralling or edge-of-your-seat thrilling as that 1986 sci-fi masterpiece. The special effects are okay but not spectacular, the action and acting are decent but not noteworthy, and the story isn't terribly complex.

Simply put, Damon and Pedro Pascal's characters are captured, the monsters attack, they join in the battle, and our protagonist must then decide whether to stay and fight or run away with his partner and another European mercenary (a wasted and not really needed Willem Dafoe). You guess what happens. Thankfully, no romance buds between the lead male and female characters, but no other real sparks of any non-romantic sort fly during the 104-some minute runtime.

All of which means we watch monsters and humans battle and then go home. And for $150 million, I would have hoped the cinematic "The Great Wall" would have been as huge and impressive as its real-life namesake and inspiration. It's not, and thus the film rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed February 15, 2017 / Posted February 17, 2017

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