THE GREAT WALL (2017, Zhang Yimou)
Now there’s an odd directorial name to write after that comma. Take one look at any of the major set-pieces in this fantasy action spectacle, and you’ll double-take on the idea that one of the greatest realist storytellers of the ’90s (the man behind such masterworks as RAISE THE RED LANTERN and TO LIVE) is doing some sort of CG monster-war movie. It would be like seeing that Wong Kar-wai directed THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
Granted, in his old age Zhang has veered towards action and fantasy a couple of times, most successfully in THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (which is as staggering narratively as it is visually) and most commercially in HERO. But still, this feels like the work of a hired gun, complacent in his late 60s, shrugging to accept the paycheck for doing this sugary piece of forgettable entertainment. It’s amusing in fits and starts, but hard to remember much of — even less than an hour after leaving the theater.
Co-writer Tony Gilroy (the only missing component of the Bourne series in JASON BOURNE, likely explaining why that film was so bad) is probably responsible for many of the clever lines in this 100-minute adventure, and his sense of humor keeps a lot of the talky scenes afloat. But the real money goes into the action scenes, and Zhang takes a few opportunities to give us some characteristic flourishes — remember the bean/drum scene from DAGGERS? Genetics of that are in the screaming arrows of Act II. And the oddly beautiful (and strangely inefficient) warfare method of bungee-jumping women-with-spears feels delightfully idiosyncratic. But then there’s a lot of communist-loving nationalism, underdeveloped characters (Willem Dafoe?), and a somewhat predictable third act. Still, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon (when this comes on Netflix), and has there ever been an unwelcome appearance by Andy Lau?