Director: Zhang Yimou
Writer: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy
Stars: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Jing Tian, Willem Dafoe
Constructed over several hundreds years and spanning over 5,500 miles long, the Great Wall of China was and still is a marvel of human engineering. What could have demanded so much in the way of time and resources? What were they trying to keep out? Primarily, the nomadic tribes that lived in the steppes north of the wall. But what if it was monsters?The Great Wall goes with the more exciting option, proposing that the real reason for the wall was to defend against the teeming hoards of ravenous beasts that lie on the other side.
Directed by Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), famed for his visual style, and starring Matt Damon (The Martian, Jason Bourne), two people very accomplished in the action genre, The Great Wall promises scale and spectacle will accompany its (arguably) interesting premise. At the very least, the action was to make for an altogether enjoyable experience, if not an altogether coherent one. It was fair to expect, at minimum, a fun ride. Unfortunately, the movie squanders its promise, making for an action film that largely fails to excite and drags on despite a relatively short runtime.
Violence: Like any medieval action movie worth its salt, there’s plenty of swordplay and archery. The monsters frequently lose limbs, are shot in the eyes, and bleed green blood. There’s some blood on the human end, but not nearly an amount proportional to the amount of people that get eaten in this movie. It’s a high number.
Language: There are a couple of instances of both gendered versions of the b-word.
Positive Messages: Jing Tian is a bright spot as a commander in the army defending the wall, and needs no man to save her. It’s great to see her kick butt and take names without becoming romantic fodder for Matt Damon. The “white savior” aspect of the movie one might expect is also minimized, probably because the film was made by a Chinese studio. The theme of positive East-West exchange is emphasized, instead of Jason Bourne just swinging in to save the day.
Damon plays a European mercenary named William who is seeking a legendary black powder. He is accompanied by fellow mercenary Tovar, played by Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones, Narcos). As they attempt to track down this powder and evade the hill tribes that hunt them, they encounter the Great Wall and The Nameless Order, the elite, specialized military force that garrisons it against the horde of monsters history presumably had forgotten about. They are captured by the Order, but eventually must join the fight if they want to survive. There’s technically more plot, including an almost entirely irrelevant subplot involving a fellow captive’s (played by Willem Dafoe) plan to escape the wall with the black powder. However, almost everything that happens after the first attack on the wall is perfunctory.
The film shows promise when we first arrive at the wall. Prior to that, we are only really treated to Matt Damon trying to figure out what accent he’s going for (spoiler alert: he never does). But when we get to the wall, we get to see Yimou’s visual talents on display. The force defending the wall is separated into squads, each with their own distinct color scheme. Archers wear red, while the Death Squad, soldiers that rappel down the wall to meet the monsters head on, wear black. It looks a bit like Power Rangers, in a good way.
The armor designs are stunning and regal, while the design of the siege weapons provide a deadly feast for the eyes. Yimou litters some tremendous-looking shots throughout the film, including a vertical inside a stained glass tower during the climax that made me let out an impressed “Hmmm.” Another positive point is the music, Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones and Person of Interest) composed an appropriately epic score. If only the film could live up to its soundtrack.
The best part of the film comes in its first act when the beasts lay siege to the wall. Here Yimou gets to have fun orchestrating a battle, with striking shots of the Crane Corps bungee jumping into action and fiery balls of justice decimating monsters. There’s marching and troop formations and orders being barked out and all the things that make Total War games great. It’s quite the sight, and leads the viewer to believe that they’re in for a Pacific Rim-style romp, full of excitement and adventure, if nothing else. But the film never manages to meet the spectacle of that first fight.
The Great Wall has the indelible problem of failing to make the viewer care. The major decision plaguing Damon’s character, whether or not to run off with the black power, is a given up from the jump, and Pedro Pascal’s cool factor is severely wasted. We know that Pascal can dominate the screen from his turn as Oberyn in Game of Thrones, but the film very much wants you to believe that Matt Damon is the coolest guy around, resulting in neither of them being all that engaging. The movie attempts the give the pair a sort of buddy cop vibe, but between underwritten dialogue and Damon’s unending quest for an accent, the endeavor falls flat.
Speaking of wasting actors, there is almost no reason for Willem Dafoe to be in this movie. The entire subplot is worthless. Many of the movie’s events feel almost entirely unnecessary. I remember leaving the theater thinking that there’s no need for a movie this lacking in substance to be two and a half hours long and that studios really need to edit their movies down. Then I saw the time and realized it had only been 1 hour and 45 minutes. It’s just that boring.
The Great Wall is full of swords, arrows, monster slaying, massive battles, glittering armor, and siege weapons, all things that I love, which is why it is all the more disappointing that I spent the majority of the movie waiting for it to end. For all the visual style that Zhang Yimou adds, it isn’t close to enough to salvage this film’s wasted potential. Uneven performances, unnecessary plots, and an overall lack of substance drag down what should have made for a delightful time at the theater. If you want to watch someone save China, you’re better off watching Mulan again.
The Bottom Line