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Grand-scale extravaganza in 'The Great Wall' lacks transcendence

The movie centers on battles between ravenous lizards known as the Taotie and those who defend the Great Wall. If you've seen one Taotie, you've seen them all.

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'The Great Wall' stars Jing Tian.

Jasin Boland/Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures/AP

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“The Great Wall,” starring Matt Damon, is the first major Chinese-Hollywood co-production and also the first predominantly English language movie from Zhang Yimou. Once upon a time, Zhang was the director of such humanist near-masterpieces as “Raise the Red Lantern” and “The Story of Qiu Ju,” but in the past decades, his work has become, for the most part, increasingly shrill and emptily spectacular. It’s as if the Chinese Vittorio De Sica had somehow morphed into China’s Cecil B. DeMille. It made perfect sense that the Chinese government, with which he is currently back in favor, would have picked him to stage the ceremonies for the 2008 Olympic Games.

“The Great Wall” may be DeMille-like, but it’s a lot closer to “Godzilla” than “The Ten Commandments.” Instead of the Red Sea, we have a sea of giant, ravenous lizards, the Taotie, that show up every sixty years to storm the Great Wall and gobble up everything and everybody in sight.

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Into this mess strides William Garin (Damon), who, along with his fellow mercenary, Tovar (Pedro Pascal of “Game of Thrones”), is captured by a militia guarding a main outpost along the Great Wall. William, as we see early on, has already bested one of the beasts and so, when the big onslaught ensues right on its 60-year schedule, he is impressed into service guarding the fortress. With great aplomb, he slices and dices the monsters. Nevertheless, they just keep coming.

I had my fill of these things long before William does. If you’ve seen one Taotie, you’ve seen them all. Zhang does an impressive job of staging the battles, and there are stray moments when the movie recalls John Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King” and other tall tales of Westerners confronting the exotic Other. But there is barely a whiff of genuine transcendence in this grand-scale extravaganza. The special effects are courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic, but the magic here is largely industrial. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence.)

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