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The Great Wall (2016)

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 5/23/2017

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 5/18/2017

I've always been a firm believer that many movies spring from a question...other than "How much money can we make with this?". Questions like "Wouldn't it be cool if?" or "What if we combined?" can be the basis for the basis for an imaginative film. But, that doesn't mean that it will be a good film. It's clear that there is a great question at the center of The Great Wall -- What if the Great Wall of China was built to protect the country from a non-human force? This extremely clever notion is the jumping-off point for a movie that represents a new level of U.S.-China co-productions.

William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are mercenaries who have coming to China in search of a new weapon called "black powder". While fleeing from marauders, they find themselves confronted with The Great Wall of China. They are captured by the Chinese forces, but instead of being sent to the stockade, they are questioned about the strange green claw in William's pack, which came from a creature that attacked him in the desert. William and Tovar soon learn that monsters called Taotie are on the move and military forces are amassed to turn them away. During the siege, the two travelers are released from their shackles, joining the fight and impressing General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing). As William learns more about the monsters and the defensive strategy, he decides to lend his years of fighting skills to the cause. But, how can they stop a horde of monsters?

The Great Wall has a lot going for it. Again, we have a great idea at the film's core. The notion that The Great Wall of China, one of the world's most famous monuments, was built for a supernatural purpose is certainly an intriguing one. The film's original story came from the impressive lineup of Max Brooks and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz (with the final screenplay being completed by Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy). The film was directed by Yimou Zhang, a veteran filmmaker who has been working in Chinese cinema since 1987 and who oversaw the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Along with Damon and the very busy Pascal, the cast features Willem Dafoe and Chinese legend Andy Lau. In addition to what is going on behind the camera, we have elaborately staged action scenes, huge sets, and a wealth of CG effects.

So, this raises the question -- Why isn't The Great Wall a better movie? The answer here is rather simple. Once we get past the great premise, the movie doesn't have many new or unique things to offer. The action sequences, with the teeming horde of monsters charging the Chinese forces perched upon the wall, reminded me of Starship Troopers. Once we've experienced the initial battle sequence, things get somewhat predictable and redundant. The monsters keep coming in waves, the soldiers keep battling them, and not much changes. Even when the venue shifts in the third act, it all feels repetitive. My wife watched about half of the movie and then bailed out. When she asked me how it ended, the fact that I was able to sum it up in just a few words doesn't bode well for the film. This coupled with the fact that the origin of the Taotie is incredibly vague tells us that the script didn't go very far past the main idea.

When The Great Wall was released, it was accused of "white washing", as it had an American actor in the lead of an otherwise mostly Chinese cast. Having now seen the film, I can say that this accusation misses the mark, as having the Western outsider be our introduction to this world works for the story. The real inequality comes into play when the soldiers shoot multiple arrows at the monsters, but William can drop one with a single shot. The movie does have a great look and the use of color is incredible, most notably in the stained-glass covered finale. The bungee-cord fighters on the wall also work well visually. But, beyond those things, the movie is somewhat flat and dull. The Great Wall is certainly worth a rental, but once you've experienced the effects and the colors, you'll forget the rest.

The Great Wall never tells us what year it's supposed to be on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 36 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no notable grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors here look fantastic, most notably the blues and greens, and the image is never overly dark or bright. The picture has an overall crispness to it which is very impressive, and it lends the image a great deal of detail and depth. The Disc carries a Dolby Atmos 7.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 6.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The action sequences deliver great stereo and surround effects, and we get individual sounds coming from the rear channels. The subwoofer effects put the icing on the cake here, as they stampeding monsters provide a discernible rumble.

The Great Wall Blu-ray Disc contains several extra features. We get eight DELETED & EXTENDED SCENES which run about 7 minutes. These are all quite brief and they present no new characters or subplots. "Matt Damon in China" (3 minutes) has the sharing his awe at the spectacle of the film and explaining some of his training. "Working with Director Zhang Yimou" (3 minutes) takes us on-set to show the filmmaker at work and has those involved i the movie singing his praises. "The Great Wall Visual Effects" (3 minutes) shows us how various layers were added which were used to complete the visual FX, as well as a look at the monsters. "Man vs. Monster" (9 minutes) is split into three sections, each of which examines of the big battles in the film, looking at the stunt work, the choreography, and the FX. "Weapons of War" (3 minutes) looks at the unique machines inside of the wall and the wacky things which are used to fight the monsters. "Designing a Spectacular World" (4 minutes) has Production Designer John Myrhe and Set Decorator Gordon Sim explaining the research which was done in creating the look of the film.

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long