Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
New movie "The Great Wall" is based around the notion that China's famous fortification was created to keep out horrifying creatures. The trailer's flashes of scaly claws and snapping jaws snatching soldiers from the battlements suggested, to me at least, dragons.
Spoiler alert: There are no dragons. Instead, a herd of slavering CGI hell-dogs come bounding over the horizon to snap at Matt Damon and chums. It's a bit of a disappointment -- which turns out to be the recurring theme of the movie.
In the time of the Song dynasty, a group of western freebooters are trying to hotfoot it out of China when they're stopped short by a big wall. The big wall, in fact. The westerners, led by Damon with an ridiculous beard and a truly, truly ridiculous accent, are just in time to witness the ancient purpose of the Great Wall: keeping out the herd of timorous beasties known as the Tao Tie.
Damon's man-bunned mercenary -- who hails from Ireland, Scotland or Massachusetts, depending which line he's chewing on -- joins the fight against the CGI nasties in a succession of medieval melees. In between, he finds time to banter with "Game of Thrones" star Pedro Pascal, pull off Robin Hood-style trick shots with his bow and arrow and make eyes at comely commander Jing Tian.
The most fun comes from the Chinese defenders of the wall, armed with elaborate steampunk war machines and divided into vividly colour-coded commando units boasting different fantastical specialties. Jing Tian, soon to be seen in "Kong: Skull Island" and "Pacific Rim: Uprising", leads the Crane Corps, elite warrior women clad in shimmering cerulean armour who gracefully leap from the battlements to brutally spear their fanged foes.
Nothing else really fires on all cylinders. The mythical beasts assailing the wall are kind of boring in that glossy CGI way, with no real personality and not one but two overly convenient weaknesses. Damon's tortuous accent and the constant need for translation between factions renders the stilted dialogue even more belaboured. And the film squanders an opportunity to do something cool with 3D, in sequences explaining Chinese history with watercolour-style animation that could have really popped off the screen but remain flat and inert.
One of the big concerns before release was the presence of western actors in a Chinese story, raising worries of whitewashing. Damon and his western buddies are presented as white saviours, like the awkward moment they're given a standing ovation for their part in a battle in which the real work was done by scores of unnamed and unheralded Chinese foot soldiers. At the same time, however, the westerners are mercenary plunderers trying to run off with the secrets of gunpowder that the Chinese wish to protect.
The focus on Damon and his globetrotting vocal inflections leaves the other characters as cyphers. Andy Lau, one of Asian cinema's most charismatic actors, is particularly wasted, reduced to pointing at things and spouting exposition.
On the plus side, it's kind of fun in a goofy way, and -- unlike some recent blockbusters that skew dark, violent and intense -- it's a genuinely all-ages romp. Kids who enjoy the colourful and acrobatic action will be delighted to find on the other side of "The Great Wall" the delights of China's wuxia martial arts movies.
Co-productions between China and Hollywood are the latest hot trend in movieland. Let's hope "The Great Wall" is a building block to better movies.
"The Great Wall" is in theatres in the UK, US and Australia now.
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