Friday, February 17, 2017

The Great Wall and Fist Fight

This review originally appeared on

It's probably mere coincidence, but the movie releases this week feel like a conscious reaction to last week's big Valentine's release, Fifty Shades Darker. Instead of a toxic female fantasy I'm sure more than one beleaguered boyfriend or husband was forced to sit through, we have Matt Damon fighting monsters in ancient China, and Charlie Day and Ice Cube beating the shit out of each other.

Of the two, The Great Wall is probably the better choice.

The Great Wall, which is a co-production between the U.S. and China, opened in China in December, and while not the box office record breaker it was designed to be, it was still a hit. It's faced some controversy, however, since the star is the definitely not Asian Matt Damon, with some accusing the movie of whitewashing. And while I understand that criticism, and the movie does suffer a bit from "white savior" syndrome, the fact remains the inclusion of a white actor in the predominantly Chinese production was a calculated move, the end goal being a film that would be a monster hit within both countries. Whether that works out remains to be seen.

Plus, this isn't some kind of historical epic we're dealing with. Set during the Song Dynasty, the film is pure fantasy, based on legends surrounding the Great Wall and just what it was built to protect China from. William Garin (Matt Damon), Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal), and their gang of mercenaries are crossing China in search of a new weapon known as "black powder." After most of their gang is killed by an unseen creature that Garin manages to kill, Garin and Tovar are captured by an army and brought to the Great Wall. They hope to learn just how Garin was able to kill the creature single handedly.

Turns out the Great Wall was built as protection against a horde of dragon-like creatures known as the Taotie. They number in the thousands and have a sole goal of reaching the capital and...eating everyone. Once they do, they will be able to multiply and take over the world.

The army guarding the Great Wall is known as the Nameless Order, and it's with them that director Yimou Zhang is able to employ his masterful use of color and spectacle, in battle sequences that are as beautiful as they are ridiculous. Each troop dons its own brightly colored battle gear (including one division whose sole purpose is beating giant drums), and has their own methods of fighting. My favorite was the electric blue Crane Troop, lead by Lin Mae (Jing Tian), who tie ropes around their waists, and leap off the wall holding spears, stabbing the Taotie before being yanked back up by the men controlling the rope cranks, ancient bungee style.

It's a good thing the Nameless Order is so entertaining and colorful, because the Taotie are kind of a visual dud, too often looking like nothing more than a mass of grey swarming warthogs. It's also too bad the action has to stop more than once to continue with the story of those two white guys--with the addition of Willem Dafoe, as another white guy in search of black powder--because frankly, it's boring. Plus, the less Damon talks, and the more he fights, the better. (I'm not sure what accent he's trying for--Irish? British? Really bad Scottish?--but I assume they just wanted him to sound a little less American, and let it go at that.)

The Great Wall is not a groundbreaking film by any means, but at least it's fun. The same can't be said for the comedy Fist Fight, starring Charlie Day as Mr. Campbell, and Ice Cube as Mr. Strickland, two teachers at an Atlanta high school, trying to survive the last day of the semester.

The last day of school is also senior prank day, which means a whole lot of pranks involving dicks, in some form or another, and the day the teachers will learn if they will still have a job come the new school year.

As one can gather from the title, and the posters, and the trailer, certain events of the day lead to Strickland vowing to kick Campbell's ass after school. The majority of the movie centers on Campbell doing everything he can to get out of the fight.

Besides Day there are some other funny actors in Fist Fight, including Tracy Morgan, Kumail Nanjiani, and Jillian Bell, and they all get maybe one or two laughs out a script that's loaded with complete duds. I think by the end of the movie I was so desperate for laughs that a moment of slapstick made me guffaw harder than I normally would. Still, to the woman next to me, who tried to laugh-shame me during that scene, all I can say is, if laughing at the sight of two idiot men trying to fight while sliding around a baby-oiled floor is wrong, I don't want to be right.

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