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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Spectral


You see dead people.

(2016) Sci-Fi Horror (Netflix/Legendary) James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, Bruce Greenwood, Max Martini, Cory Hardrict, Clayne Crawford, Gonzalo Menendez, Ursula Parker, Aaron Serban, Stephen Root, Royce Pierreson, Jimmy Akingbola, Philip Bulcock, Ryan Robbins, Dylan Smith, Louis Ozawa Changchien, James D. Dever, Mark O’Neal, Michael Bodie, Declan Hannigan  Directed by Nic Mathieu

 

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by the minds of mortal men. Sometimes the minds of mortal men think up some amazing things. Some of those things are way too dangerous and should be left alone.

A group of elite U.S. soldiers are in the country of Moldova whose government has collapsed. They are attacked by something strange; glowing vaguely human beings that might be ghosts who kill with a single touch. The commander of the U.S. force (Greenwood) calls in DARPA scientist Mark Clyne (Dale) who developed goggles that allow men to see the invisible to the naked eye spectral beings.

He is accompanied by Fran Madison (Mortimer), a CIA analyst who believes that the deaths are the result of some super-weapon that the insurgents have developed. Using the goggles that Dr. Clyne built, the soldiers determine that the specters can’t be harmed with small arms fire. Clyne modifies searchlights so that they can see the specters more easily. They also find out that the creatures, which can move through solid walls, can’t go through iron. They modify their explosive devices so that they fire iron filings at the things.

The soldiers find a laboratory and discover to their shock that these specters were the results of weapons experiments in which human beings were duplicated with advanced 3D printers and are kept alive by the brains of the originals. However, control was lost of the experiment and now the city is full of these specters and it won’t take long before they overrun everything.

This was originally developed at Universal as part of their deal with Legendary who had just separated from their long-time distributors at Warner Brothers. However, when push came to shove the studio declined to release the film and Netflix eventually snapped it up. So Netflix essentially got a ready-made (relatively) big budget genre film.

Dale has been on the ragged edge of leading man duties for awhile and this should have been a career boost but sadly it likely won’t be now. That’s a shame; he’s a fine actor and while I don’t think this particular role really benefits him well, he at least does a decent enough job with an underwritten role that is largely a video game character.

In fact the whole movie reminded me of a video game. Sort of like Call of Duty meets Aliens with a dash of Ghostbusters thrown in only with the humor excised. That might work for some but I think it’s a serious miscalculation. People who like videogames want to have some control rather than passively watch someone else’s vision. The filmmakers would have been better served to make this less of a videogame cinematic.

The special effects aren’t half bad in some places and while the plot tends to meander a little bit, it doesn’t do so enough to make the film incomprehensible. I can see why Universal hesitated about releasing this wide; it seems to appeal to a niche audience and given that most videogame adaptations have been epic failures both critically and at the box office, I’m not sure that a videogame adaptation of a game that doesn’t exist would do any better. It seems tailor-made for Netflix and while I thought it was a bit disappointing, it is entertaining enough and interesting enough to be worth a look.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the special effects are nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little bit convoluted.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense sci-fi action sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Badge Dale and Max Martini also played military roles in 13 Hours.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Objective
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Salesman