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Yes, it’s really great. Really
To defend China’s capital city from a horde of gluttonous monsters, local military built the Great Wall. On that wall sit color coordinated troops – red archers, yellow spearmen, and so on – ready to strike when the monsters come every 60 years. The women in blue? They’re bungee jumpers. They catch two spears theatrically tossed to them and peering down from their specially made perch, the women drop, stab the creatures, and bounce back up to reset. It’s completely inefficient – but it looks spectacular.
The Great Wall succumbs to stupidity. It so rarely makes sense, the editing is often incoherent, tone is never reconciled, and it’s so flashy, that flash obliterates much of the substance.
Yet as an Asian fable espousing western greed, Great Wall’s enthusiasm keeps the film firing. Unwinding with a furious pacing and a multitude of enormously scaled battle scenes, Zhang Yimou’s hyper-expensive blockbuster is too fun to write off.
Consider Great Wall a flawed popcorn masterpiece. Hokey but smart, goofy yet splendid, and dim but bright. Matt Damon leads, setting off a near-sighted internet misfire pre-release over his casting. In action, Damon’s Caucasian drifter comes to terms with Asian culture, bridging a gap of trust between nations while allowing Chinese star Tian Jing room to carry the film.
It’s a monster movie, clumsy and clunky, mixing banter with hard-headed, immovable drama. At times, Yimou’s work feels like an imitation. His signatures, from splashy inventive action to sizable color, fill this feature, yet it’s constrained by a need to mimic the blockbuster formula. Damon trades quips with buddy Pedro Pascal as if in a Marvel film. Alongside their bickering, the Chinese characters must consider their ultimate fate. That Western indifference to a foreign plight isn’t out of place, however.
What Great Wall has is 90-minutes to entertain. So it does, and uses each of those minutes to keep the minimal plot heading forward. While American blockbusters like Transformers feel a need to endlessly linger, Yimou wastes not a bit of digital film.
Treating the material as a mythological fantasy, Yimou’s skillfully injects pizzazz into the piece, a youthful energy from a nearly 70-year old director. Great Wall bounces and moves like no American-produced action epic, exuberant and frequently employing a daydream-like logic. What looks inventive matters first; flourishes will wrangle in the audience, even against this rudimentary storytelling. Like a Chinese or Hong Kong martial arts fight fest, Great Wall isn’t concerned with whether the action makes sense, just that it is and the choreography is stellar.
Great Wall doesn’t ask much of its audience. Unlike the windy, twisty lore of Marvel and its ilk, Great Wall introduces a threat – the hive-minded Tao Tei – and the heroes who can stop them. In there is military prestige, cultural propagation, raw spectacle, and generous fighting – a perfect match for popcorn.
A 4K showpiece from beginning to end, the level of fidelity visible in this production is astonishing. Even if the film itself doesn’t click, the remarkable wealth of texture installed onto the armor and costumes can draw a viewer in. Facial definition shows up in close and from afar. The uptick from the Bu-ray isn’t only sleight – it’s an example to show anyone hesitant to upgrade.
The same too with the color spectrum. No longer caught up in the heavy color grading – at least not as much so – uniforms seem to glisten for the camera. Primary color intensity picks up immediately, donning the armor and the monster’s green skin. Vivid explosions burst with oranges.
Further still, shadows hold awesome density, holding back noise with only a handful of exceptions in the wall’s underbelly. It’s minor. Massive contrast gives this production all the depth possible, creating thick dimension at night, blending with heavy contrast elsewhere.
The only fault (if it even is one) is the tepid use of top-end HDR. While flames lighting the wall interior and explosions create some peppy moments of contrast, the rest of Great Wall feels a bit reserved. Most of the benefit is given to the shadows, and that’s okay.
A handful of problems take their shots at The Great Wall’s video presentation. Most are minor. Inconsistent black levels comes up first, revealing pockets of noise and horizontal banding in shadows. It’s infrequent, but when bumping against the stellar dimensionality established during a nighttime fight with a single monster, those lesser scenes take their toll.
Color grading unfortunately takes some bite out of the movie. Frequent dips into mild orange/blue palettes reduces saturation. Dramatic scenes slip into grayish blues, a further loss. When Great Wall needs color though, this disc strikes. The various colors of armor, the green creatures, the sizable flames – all of it looks spectacular. The ridiculous finale, streaming in light from rainbow stained glass windows, begs for saturation and gets it.
The above qualms aside, some superlative, glossy resolution gives the film an expensive veneer. Fidelity of uniforms, armor, clothing, and the sightly panoramas spread throughout deliver. Universal’s flawless encoding manages thousands of Tao Tei smashing into the wall, this without a hint of artifacting. Facial definition captures everything necessary and expected of high-dollar productions.
A striking (and dare I use the word perfect) Dolby Atmos mix joins The Great Wall. The audio alone is worth watching this movie. From the thundering war drums during the opening Universal logo to the thousands of Tao Tei rampaging around the soundfield, it’s rare a mix makes itself so prominent. Directionality is precise enough to set a standard.
Any of three major attack scenes serve as demo material, but the second has the highlight. Hitting the monsters with whistling arrows, Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal become surrounded in a fog, the whistles panning a full 360 degrees. The scene demands audio support. It couldn’t be any better. Positional use is accentuated and that cleverness follows through the entire movie. Even the most passive dialog scene echos the conversation around throughout the concrete of the wall, filling front and rears.
And bass? Great Wall houses the best war drums on this or any format. Their power is absurd. Add in catapults and gunpowder for additional thrust in the low-end. Again, smaller scenes benefit too. Horses run through a mountain region and soldiers walk in unison, their shields slamming down when in position. Sensational work.
The disc finally falls with the puny bonuses. Seven minutes of deleted/extended scenes come up together with seven short featurettes, none longer than four minutes. They’re PR fluff, mostly centered around Damon. If the internet wants to focus its fervor somewhere, here’s the opportunity. The Chinese cast is snubbed.
A stylish sense for action and brisk plotting keep The Great Wall entertaining as possible, even if it’s indulgent and stupid.
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