Hardly Zhang Yimou’s best film, The Great Wall features some good ideas but is mostly boring
“What is it they want?”
China has a population of 1.3 billion. The Great Wall of China, according to this film, seems to accommodate roughly half of that, and they all … live inside the Wall, as soldiers? This movie is so dumb, you guys.
So The Great Wall deals with the conflict between soldiers at the Wall and some invading monsters – The Tao Tei, mythical creatures representing greed. Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal play characters whose names I’ve either forgotten or were never mentioned. With their team (who die moments in), they are on the search for the long-sought-after black powder, which they plan on stealing from the Chinese. They come across the Great Wall, and after proving that they somehow managed to kill a Tao Tei easily, are allowed to stay.
There, they meet Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), who introduce them to the various troops of the Nameless Order inform them of the struggles they face against the Tao Tei. And then the movie just sort of carries on with Pascal’s character still wanting to steal powder, while Damon involves himself deeper with the soldiers, and specifically Lin.
This movie sparked a lot of controversy about casting Matt Damon in the lead role of a Chinese historical movie and while I would at least try to add my two cents regarding this, at the end of the day, The Great Wall simply isn’t worth it. It’s not even very good. Matt Damon doesn’t really do a hell of a lot in this film, for one thing. He brings a Deus Ex Machina and fires the killing blow that ends it, sure, but really this is Lau and Jing’s film. They do the bulk of the work, and should be credited for it.
But enough about that. This is a Zhang Yimou fantasy action film, this hardly touches upon the realm of reality. The visuals, as is natural for the highly divisive Zhang (for the record, I’m a fan of his), are beautiful. Zhang knows how to direct huge, sweeping shots of battle, and these moments are the best parts of the film, by a mile. The design of the different army corps means we can tell what’s going on, even in the craziest scenes and lends a clarity to it that isn’t often seen in these kinds of movies. Even the Lord of the Rings had trouble differentiating between the dark armour of the orcs versus those of the men.
And my god is everything big when it wants to be. The early marketing suggested the Tao Tei were more like regular, ravaging animals; the sorts of creatures that would be easy arrow fodder due to their squishiness and stupidity. Zhang gives us a nice twist on the convention by a) making the creatures incredibly intelligent, b)making them damn near impossible to kill and c) putting in about a million of them at any given point. This actually manages to raise the stakes during the battle sequences because the armies are given a genuine threat that very well could kill them and wipe out the entire planet’s population.
But the movie is also very, very stupid. The story is full of silly moments of non-logic, which really kills the buzz once all the killing stops. Because as much as Lau and Jing play their roles excellently (as well as Pascal, who is surprisingly likeable while being something of a douche), their characters are just idiots. This makes the character moments in the middle of the film feel like they go on forever, and this really drags the movie down. It’s never a good sign when you start checking your watch.
Add into the fact that it simply isn’t all that memorable and there’s only so much beautiful battles and gorgeous costuming can do to save your film. As it stands, The Great Wall is hardly abysmal. I don’t regret seeing it, but there are also tonnes of other Chinese fantasy action films you could check out, at the same time. The Great Wall was like an introduction to Chinese cinema for Western audiences, like Crouching Tiger once was, except while Crouching Tiger embraced its Chinese heritage, Great Wall put Matt Damon in a lot of scenes where he does virtually nothing, had some sick fights and called it a day.
Verdict: It boasts some nice battles, but it’s hardly enough to save what is otherwise a pretty medicore film.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 5.5/10
Scale of Epic-ness: 8/10
Whitewashing: This isn’t the place for that. Look elsewhere
Black Powder: Equal parts MacGuffin and Deux Ex Machina!
Willem Dafoe: Was in this. He did even less than Damon
Unanswered questions: What about the rest of the wall? This only accounts for like a mile of it
Instead, Watch This: House of Flyng Daggers, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
The Great Wall (2017)
Also known as: 長城
Director: Zhang Yimou
Writers: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy.
Wait, those are all white guys? That’s it! I’m opening up the Whitewashing debate
Matt Damon – William Garin
Jing Tian – Commander Lin Mae
Andy Lau – Wang
Pedro Pascal – Pero Tovar
Willem Dafoe – Sir Ballard
Zhang Hanyu – Shao
Eddie Peng – Commander Wu
Lu Han – Peng Yong
Lin Gengxin – Commander Chen
Chen Xuedong – Commander of the Imperial Guard
Huang Xuan – Commander of the Deer Troop
Wang Junkai – The Emperor
Ryan Zheng – Shen