The Great Wall is directed by Zhang YImou, and written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy from a story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz. It stars Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, and Eddie Peng.
The Great Wall is not nearly as off-the-wall crazy as the marketing had me hoping. It occupies a pretty unique space in the cinematic landscape: it’s an international co-production between China and the US that’s being sold as a major blockbuster in both countries. I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later, seeing as American blockbusters have been catering more and more to Chinese audiences in recent years (Iron Man 3, for instance, had extra footage shot specifically for its Chinese release).
What we have, however, is a pretty bland fantasy film. This is disappointing coming from a Zhang Yimou: a respected filmmaker who’s done such fine work as House of Flying Daggers. The plot concerns two mercenaries, William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal), who are searching China for black powder (gunpowder). They are beset by a monster, which William quickly kills, and are soon captured by the Nameless Order, a military division led by Commander Lin Mae (Jing). They learn that the monster they encountered is one of many, and that they (the monsters) have been attacking the Wall for a while. William and Tovar earn the Order’s trust, and soon aid them in their fight against the beasts.
There’s really not a whole lot more to it than that. The film runs a moderately paced 103 minutes, doling out action scenes at frequent enough pace to keep audiences engaged. As a piece of writing, it’s pretty dry, with no surprising reversals or real escalation from set piece to set piece. What sinks it ultimately is a serious dearth of compelling characters. Matt Damon (doing a bizarre accent which wavers by the scene) is just boring in this role. He has no chemistry with Tian Jing, with whom he shares many scenes. Jing herself is fine I guess, but is never really given the opportunity to do anything interesting. Pascal is okay as the roguish Tovar, getting all the funniest lines (though it can’t help but feel as though he’s playing a watered-down version of his great Game of Thrones character). The film also manages to totally waste Willem Dafoe.
The action set pieces are the sort of CG nightmares that make my eyes glaze over. I’ll give it this: it certainly looks expensive. Yimou and his cinematographers Stuart Dryburgh and Zhao Xiaoding craft striking images that call to mind the filmmaker’s earlier work. There’s a sequence involving hot air balloons that comes to mind, as well as the climax, set in and around a tower covered in stained glass.
There has been a bit of controversy around the film due to the casting of Matt Damon. It didn’t bother me too much seeing as this is an international co-production from a Chinese filmmaker, but if you’re inclined to be offended by this sort of thing, I will not try to convince you not to be, as Damon’s performance doesn’t exactly justify his casting.
All in all, I was unimpressed with The Great Wall, and hope Yimou’s next film is better.
– Anthony Calamunci