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'The Great Wall' Stands As A Monument To Absurd CGI Clutter

Feb 17, 2017
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. A new action movie shot in China by a Chinese director has a budget of $150 million and an American star. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "The Great Wall" stars Matt Damon as a mercenary in ancient China fighting computer-generated monsters alongside thousands of Chinese extras whose salaries added together probably didn't equal Damon's. The monsters are called Tao Tei. They live in Jade mountain and - I'm reading from my press notes - rise every 60 years to feed upon humanity and punish mankind's greed. Damon's William Garin is in China with his comic relief Spaniard pal Tovar, played by Pedro Pascal.

When the film begins, Garin kills a Tao Tei and brings its hand to a nearby fortress behind the Great Wall in which the so-called Nameless Order trains for 60 years for the next Tao Tei uprising. The Nameless don't believe one man alone could kill a Tao Tei, so Garin recounts the story. A swing of the sword, he says. The hand fell away clean. The beast fell back into the chasm. Much of the dialogue sounds like that, like it's badly translated from Mandarin. But the writers are all American. I guess they watched a lot of wuxia movies and internalized the bad subtitles.

Wuxia is the martial arts sword and sorcery genre, and "The Great Wall's" director, Zhang Yimou, made a couple of the greatest wuxia films ever - "Hero" in 2002 and "House Of Flying Daggers" in 2004. I don't think he's ever had to contend with this much CGI clutter, though. The Tao Tei look like giant reptiles with helmet heads out of an "Alien" movie. But the action isn't edited so you can see what's going on, so they go by in a blur.

The setup for the first battle - that's impressive, though. Atop the wall, the Nameless Order surveys the charging beasts while scores of men beat scores of big drums. And down below, soldiers take big, heavy, iron balls and douse them in oil and light them and send them raining down on the Tao Tei. And we follow the balls all the way down as they go boom. Identically blue-clad female warriors get strapped into harnesses and swing down to lance the creatures, though unfortunately, what comes back up is only chewed-up harnesses. A friend I was with said, 60 years? They had 60 years and that's all they could come up with? Send some acrobats down on ropes and watch them get eaten?

A young female leader named Lin forms a bond with William, but the alliance at first is uneasy. She fights for her people, she says, while he only looks out for himself. Also, he doesn't have trust. She says a man must learn to trust before he can be trusted. And he takes that in. Matt Damon drops his voice half an octave and sucks in his gut and tries to look heroically stoic.

For a while, I wondered why he made "The Great Wall," but then I realized - why not? As a big movie star, he can be a secret agent, an astronaut on Mars or a fearless warrior in ancient China. You and I can't be any of those things. This is one of those movies where you stop the monster by killing the queen, who sends out some sort of life force. Evolutionarily speaking, that strikes me as very maladaptive. What happens if the queen trips and falls? The whole species goes extinct? Oh, let's not quibble. The absurdity is what makes it fun.

In the climactic shot, two characters swing over hundreds of monsters and it looks incredibly fake. But in a way, I'd have been disappointed if it hadn't. The money shot had to be lousy or it wouldn't fit with the rest of the movie. If you don't on some level love "The Great Wall" I feel bad for you. Yes, it's terrible, but lavishly, generously terrible. And even at its worst, it isn't painful to watch unless you're a studio accountant. That might be scary.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, presidential secrecy and transparency. We'll talk with writer Mary Graham, author of the new book "Presidential Secrets: The Use And Abuse Of Hidden Power" (ph). She'll talk about historical presidential secrets and what she describes as President Trump's lack of transparency. Hope you can join us.

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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Today's senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Therese Madden directed today's show. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "AIN'T THAT THE TRUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.