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Film review: ‘The Great Wall’

‘The Great Wall’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated PG-13. Running time 1:46. Visit cinemawest.com.


“The Great Wall” is an excellent use case for the future of Hollywood releases. It has no mandate to appeal to the American public (in its first week, it did 13 times greater box office overseas than domestically). Indeed, the putative star, Matt Damon, appears to be the token white dude to entice us, the secondary audience. “Warcraft,” an execrable film crucified by domestic critics, made $433 million worldwide, largely in Asian markets—as in other areas, American omnipotence is over.

Appropriately enough, the titular Great Wall is visible from outer space, at least the version of outer space you see in the animated Universal logo. Damon plays the soldier of fortune William Garin with a calamitous medieval English accent in his mouth and succulent chignon atop his head. William accidentally runs right into that big wall while trying to find a sample of a mysterious new technology—gunpowder—that will make him rich in the west. With him is Tovar (Pedro Pascal from “Game of Thrones”—rest in peace Red Viper!), an old mercenary pal from Spain. Does Tovar call William “amigo” repeatedly? You bet.

The wall is protected by the Nameless Order (the moniker is a cop out, but at least the leaders get to wear cool amulets) who are decked out in bright costumes according to their specialties (red is for archers, blue is for aerialists, etc.). Their battle movements are as sharply-colored and well-choreographed as North Korean political rallies. Of special bravery are blue team commandress Lin Mae (Jing Tian), General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau).

The wall and the warriors protect Song dynasty subjects from the fearsome Tao Tei. From a distance, these beasts resemble dragons but they are not (probably because if they could fly the whole big wall thing would’ve been moot pretty quick). They are more like larger, angrier iguanas with eyes on their shoulders and relentless murder in their hearts.

Director Zhang Yimou (perhaps best remembered stateside for 2002’s “Hero”) is an action maximalist, a strict devotee to vertiginous overhead angles—this film sets the Guinness record for shots following the path of arrows from bow to target. “The Great Wall” is written by Tony Gilroy, perhaps with the instructions, “Hey do what you did with ‘Armageddon’ except instead of asteroids, giant lizards.” He adapts a story from Max Brooks, who lifted the sequence from his book “World War Z” in which the zombie horde clambers over piles of corpses to scale a big wall.

William has reached a mystical, near-Legolas level as an archer and earns his keep shooting the reptilian beasts off the battlements. He also proves himself smooth with chopsticks and friendly banter with Lin Mae about various topics, like being a war orphan. They are too honorable to hook up but spend some steamy hours devising more adventurous ways to repel those pesky Tao Tei.

Lin Mae learned English from the other European speaker on the wall, Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe, creeping about in corners as is his wont), who tries to enlist William and Tovar to steal some gunpowder and hightail it back to Europe. Tovar is game but William slows them down out of purely platonic devotion to the lady general—he goes from a heartless thief to Davy Crockett at the Alamo in a bewildering hurry. This is because, after the tireless efforts of Lin Mae, William masters exactly one word in Chinese: trust.

‘The Great Wall’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated PG-13. Running time 1:46. Visit cinemawest.com.

The tough truth about the narrative is that the Tao Tei must eventually get past the barrier to keep the plot moving. But how?

A spoiler alert for those engaged in the quixotic construction of great walls to keep “them” out: They’re going to dig great tunnels. Watch the trailer below: