May 2022

The Great Wall (2017)

DIRECTOR: Zhang Yimou

CAST: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau


The Great Wall was touted as a major collaboration between the Chinese film industry and Hollywood, with the biggest budget in the history of Chinese motion pictures, special effects by Industrial Light & Magic, and a collection of respectable talent including Matt Damon, acclaimed director Zhang Yimou, and writers Tony Gilroy and Edward Zwick, but the end result is lackluster.  The Great Wall might be entertaining for twelve-year-old boys demanding nothing more substantive than some action, special effects, and big battle scenes, but is a waste of time and money for anyone else.

To say this is a fictionalized version of the Great Wall of China is to understate the matter.  In this version of reality, the wall was constructed to defend the empire against a seemingly limitless horde of reptilian monsters who swarm out from their mountain stronghold every sixty years and lay siege.  Into this conflict come two European mercenaries, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), who stumble across the Wall while fleeing hill tribes and are taken prisoner by its garrison, commanded by Commander Lin (Tian Jing).  When it turns out William already slew one of the beasts and produces its severed arm as proof, Lin conscripts them into helping with the defense.  But when the garrison discovers the attacks have been merely a diversion to mask a breach of the wall, and that the horde is headed for Beijing, William and Lin race to destroy the Queen, without whom the hive mind army will shut down.

The Great Wall recalls a non-interactive video game, with the monsters’ eyes representing video game weak spots and killing the Queen being the ultimate goal, and this is the kind of thing that might have been more involving as a video game.  After the skeletal set-up, the movie is mostly a series of battles that look like a knock-off of the Battle of Helm’s Deep as waves of creatures swarm the wall, along with thin subplots like an alliance between Tovar and another European, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), to steal the valuable gunpowder the garrison keeps under lock and key, and investigating the effects magnets have on the creatures.  Character development is nonexistent apart from William’s obligatory arc of starting out as a self-interested mercenary with no allegiance except to the highest bidder who finds a cause to believe in, which is so thinly-sketched as to be irrelevant.  At least the movie is pretty to look at; special effects, set design, and costumes are top-notch, and Zhang Yimou captures some scenic landscape shots and striking images (including kaleidoscopic light streaming through a series of stained glass windows), but while there’s some style, there’s no substance.

Matt Damon (whose inclusion was criticized for shoehorning a bankable American star into a Chinese movie for box office motives, along with the inherent “white savior” aspect) shows up to collect a paycheck in a role that doesn’t require anything besides some action scenes and reciting some unchallenging dialogue.  The only noteworthy thing about Damon’s performance is that some viewers will be distracted trying to figure out what kind of accent he’s half-heartedly attempting (it sounds vaguely Irish).  Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones’ ill-fated Oberyn Martell) is Damon’s sidekick, Chinese star Tian Jing is an effectively tough action heroine, and Willem Dafoe is the cowardly, weaselly Ballard.

The Great Wall might be a fleetingly entertaining diversion for the bored and undemanding, but when the flashy effects and colorful costumes and Lord of the Rings-wannabe battle scenes are over, any impression evaporates like morning mist, leaving you realizing you could have spent the last hour and forty-five minutes doing something more productive than watching this.

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