The Great Wall


Matt Damon steels himself.

(2017) Adventure (Universal/Legendary) Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng, Xuan Huang, Ryan Zheng, Karry Wang, Cheney Chen, Pilou Asbæk, Numan Acar, Johnny Cicco, Yu Xiantian, Bing Liu. Directed by Zhang Yimou

 

The battles that shape the future of humanity don’t always take place in plain sight. Sometimes they remain hidden away whether to keep people from panicking or because it suits the leadership of those involved to have those battles take place behind great walls.

William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) are European mercenaries who are tasked with going to China to obtain gunpowder, a technology not yet available in the West. Along the way their party is attacked by a vicious iguana-like monster that William slays. As they venture further into China they are captured and taken before a general (Zhang). Most of the commanders including Lin Mae (Jing), the general’s right hand, believe these men to be thieves come to rob China of her secrets but the general is impressed enough with William’s feat of monster slaying that he refrains from executing them but the men are imprisoned as the army of the Nameless Order are on the eve of a desperate battle – one against an overwhelming army of those same creatures that William slew only in vast numbers.

The two Westerners are befriended by Ballard (Dafoe), a former Jesuit who has been retained by the general as a translator. The odds are against the army and if the monsters who are called Tei Tao break through the Great Wall, there is nothing between them and Beijing and from there they can go onto overrun the entire planet. William, recognizing that here is finally a war worth fighting, sways Lin Mae and soon the two are planning the final stand against the horde but William observes a means where the day might yet be saved.

Yimou is one of China’s most revered directors, best known in the West for his amazing opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics but among film buffs he has a resume that includes some of the most visually impressive films of the last 20 years. Given an astronomical budget by Chinese standards, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and the backing of a major studio it is not surprising that this was a movie I’ve been anticipating for the past few years. Unfortunately, despite all the elements in its favor the movie proves to be a disappointment.

The CGI creatures are unconvincing and look like CGI creatures. There’s nothing organic about them. We see entire hordes of them swarming like ants and the bird’s eye view of the swarm should be terrifying or at least intimidating but it comes off looking phony. If you’re going to fight monsters, they should at least look like they are actually alive and dangerous.

The chemistry between Damon and Pascal is nearly non-existent; the banter between the two sounds forced and unconvincing. Damon affects a bizarre accent that sounds like an Irishman who’d lived half his life in Nebraska. His Boston Irish accent in Good Will Hunting was far more authentic. I get a sense that Pascal is frustrated that his character has little or no depth to it and ends up being a generic second banana. They could have gotten a banana to play the role for all the personality the writers gave the part.

The color-coded armies that make up the Nameless Order are far more impressive and when Yimou is directing major battle sequences with soldiers bungee jumping upside down into the very mouths of the creatures the movie is far more thrilling. While he set design is largely muted, Yimou gets to go extravagant on his Forbidden City sets and he seems more comfortable with those.

This is a movie that fails to showcase Yimou’s visual sense to its fullest and inserts a badly miscast Damon in a role that seems to exist mainly to placate studio bosses unsure of making a movie made in China with a mainly Chinese cast as a tentpole; in fact, the release date was eventually moved to February after it appeared this was going to be a summer or Holiday release. That proved to be a wise move. Maybe someday a studio with a little bit more sense will let Yimou make an epic movie with a Chinese cast without having to insert a Western actor into the mix. I don’t know that American audiences are ready for that but they seemed to be all right with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A great movie will find its audience.

REASONS TO GO: Yimou has one of the most cinematic eyes in the history of movies.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie overall is kind of a hot mess.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence of a fantasy/war nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lau and Damon played the same role in Infernal Affairs and the Martin Scorsese remake The Departed respectively.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Mine

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Kung Fu Panda 2


Kung Fu Panda 2

There's nothing like a little musical accompaniment when dueling to the death.

(2011) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, James Hong, David Cross, Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride, Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber, Jean Claude van Damme. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Most of us are pretty well aware of our pasts. We know where we came from and it’s true, it helps us understand where we’re going. What we fail to realize, however, is that who we were isn’t as important as who we are…and who we intend to become.

Po (Black) has settled into his role as Dragon Warrior, protector of the Valley and a member of the Furious Five…who now have a plus one. Things are going swell for the time being, although Master Shifu (Hoffman) warns Po that if he is to continue in his growth, he must find inner peace. For the moment, the only inner peace Po wants is the one that comes after a big meal.

During a fight with some bandits in a village of musicians, Po sees an emblem on the armor of the leader of the wolf pack (McBride) and has a flashback to when he was a very small child. He thinks he might be seeing his mother. Later, he questions his father Ping (Hong) about it, and Ping is only able to tell him that he found Po in a box of radishes without any idea of how he got there. Po becomes determined to find out where he came from.

He might have picked a better time to take a stroll down memory lane. Lord Shen (Oldman), an albino peacock, has developed a weapon of terrible power and threatens to conquer all of China with it. He has already taken on the combined masters of Kung Fu (Garber, Haysbert, van Damme) and beaten them. If the world knows that there is a weapon that can defeat even these masters, will Kung Fu be at last broken?

Nelson worked as a story editor on the first film and makes her directing debut here. It’s actually a pretty self-assured one; she tells much of Po’s back story, and utilizes flashbacks by telling them in anime-style hand-drawn animation. The computer generated stuff is quite amazing and beautiful – some of the best-rendered animation outside of Pixar. It’s really too bad that all of the care taken on that score is ruined by watching it in 3D through dark glasses, ruining the color palate of the animators. All for the sake of a few cutsie pie effects that are just as effective in 2D.

The story here is ambitious. While there’s still an element of fat buffoon to Po, that’s been considerably toned down here. He is after all, the Dragon Warrior. The dynamic has changed between him and the Furious Five as well; where Tigress (Jolie) was once his adversary, now she’s his best friend. Hong also has much more of an expanded role in Ping – a very welcome development, in my opinion.

There are some pretty dark elements here, particularly when it comes to Po’s early life. That’s all well and good but when your target audience is kids, I find that kind of disappointing. Not that everything has to be sunshine and lollipops in kid movies, but there are some things in the story that I thought was a bit inappropriate for the younger set in the sense that it might cause them to feel a bit insecure. You may, of course, disagree with me in this.

I also found the charm of the first movie to be largely missing. By making Po competent and even a superior fighter, much of what I found charming about the first movie is taken away. Also, the primary relationship in the movie is between Po and Tigress; Shifu has little more than an extended cameo here and his relationship to Po was at the center of the first movie, and it is sorely missed here.

Adding Michelle Yeoh to the mix as an ancient seer is a master stroke of casting; she also does some of the narration and she’s a welcome addition, adding a bit of gravitas and authenticity. She is far too absent from the movies; it’s a bit of a shame because she’s one of the best actresses in the world but she’s sadly hit that age where actresses tend to be cast aside as being not young enough to be a romantic lead but not old enough to get the Meryl Streep types of roles. Hollywood has tunnelvision in many ways; I would hope that someday they’ll understand that women like Yeoh are far sexier and alluring than some of the 20-something hardbodies that pass for leading ladies these days. End rant.

I do admire the movie for its willingness to take a risk and not be just another money-grubbing animated feature. That may have translated to the disappointing box office take its first weekend with almost no competition for the family movie dollar, something which will change in a couple of weeks when Cars 2 enters the fray. I don’t think it was successful in everything it attempted to do, but I’m glad that they at least gave an effort to do something other than the safe and boring that is often passed off as family entertainment these days.

REASONS TO GO: The gang’s all back and the story gives us a good deal of insight into Po’s background.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as charming as the first movie and quite a bit darker.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence which might upset the really little ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DreamWorks executives visited Chengdu in China, considered to be the “Panda hometown” to learn more about Pandas and Chinese culture; elements of their visit were later incorporated into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, the kids are going to want to see it in the theater so you may as well.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Black Snake Moan