The Great Wall

The first movie I ever reviewed was “Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold,” a bad Indiana Jones rip-off that starred Richard Chamberlin and Sharon Stone (poor substitutes for Harrison Ford and Karen Allen). I was ten years old at the time and loved the movie, despite its abundant cheesiness, horrible plotting, horrible acting…basically, it’s horrible everything. As my Father drove us home from the movie theater, I exclaimed excitedly how much I loved the movie. My Father interjected with, “How about when we get home, you write a movie review about it?” Once I got home, I sat down at my desk and wrote my first (and hardly my best) film critique. From that day on, I reviewed every single movie I watch, a dedicated habit I started at age ten.

As I sit here and type this, I am celebrating my fortieth birthday, which means I’ve been writing film reviews (in varying forms ranging from a local hand-out, to a college paper columnist and as a professional member of the film reviewing press) for thirty years. I love being a movie critic. My mind goes easily back to “Allan Quatermain,” not only because it instigated this journey that I love so much but because seeing and enjoying it as B-movie trash was a lot like my experience with “The Great Wall.”

Here is a gigantic epic, filmed in China, starring Matt Damon as an 11th century warrior who helps the Chinese military protect the Great Wall. Allow me to be more specific: Damon, sporting long, Fabio-like hair and an on-again/off-again, vaguely Minnesotan accent, aides Chinese warriors as they protect the Great Wall of China from an infestation of giant lizard monsters. I was baffled when I discovered that this turkey is a massive blockbuster overseas and that it’s been directed by the great Zhang Yimou.

Damon has made ambitious movies that didn’t work out before but this is, bar none, the most absurd role and unfortunate movie choice of his career. The problem isn’t that Damon in the lead is a case of “whitewashing” (as early criticism declared) but that he’s wrong for the part and embarrasses himself. If Jimmy Kimmel is looking for further material to mock his faux late night nemesis, look no further.

Yimou once made “To Live,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero” and (my favorite) “House of Flying Daggers.” His gift at staging complicated action sequences and large scale pageantry remains strong but he’s defeated by a dopey script, overflowing with clunky one-liners. There’s lots of disjointed editing, making many scenes feel pared down from a longer cut.

How silly is this movie? Imagine a circus clown trying to swat a fly with a rubber chicken, while riding a unicycle as “Row Row Row Your Boat” plays. It’s that kind of silly, resulting in the kind of I-can’t-believe-I’m-really-watching-this spectacle that is worth it for bad movie lovers.

As an action movie, “The Great Wall” moves well and has lots of cool Damon-versus-dragon battle scenes. The CGI is well done but sometimes overly obvious and cartoonish. It will work best for kids and adults who’ve never seen “Dragonslayer” or “Reign of Fire.” As snicker-worthy dragon flicks go, this one is equal to “Dungeons & Dragons.”

It appears that lavish fantasy stinkers come out this time of year, following the visionary but laughable “Jupiter Ascending” and “Gods of Egypt.” I enjoyed those movies for their undeniable entertainment value but cannot deny nor forgive how awful they were. I feel the same way about “The Great Wall,” which works and fails on the same level as “Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold.” Both movies are colossally stupid. Yet, I laughed so hard and smiled so wide, I’m grateful they exist.

One and a Half Stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly