Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau, Willem Defoe
Plot: A mercenary (Damon) on the hunt for dangerous black powder to sell illegally back home, stumbles across a centuries old war fought atop the Great Wall of China.
The Great Wall is the kind of film that, despite the poor reviews and angry critics, you desperately want to succeed. For one, the concept of a predominantly Chinese blockbuster is a fun notion. Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers wowed audiences on a small scale, but Chinese work struggles on a mainstream battleground. The Great Wall was meant to be the film to change that. Ignore the casting of non-Chinese actors, Damon, Pascal and Defoe; they are merely names to draw in a Western audience. They are largely spectators to a large Asian cast, promoting Asian history, legend and culture (with splashes of fantasy), and filmed entirely in China. This is definitely an Eastern production. The other big reason that we all want the Great Wall to do strongly in the box office is… well, the premise of soldiers fighting monsters on the Great Wall of China is actually pretty cool. Therefore, we all went into this movie, praying that it delivered.
It takes the very first shot to kill those hopes faster than Matt Damon can shoot down a CGI lizard. A large sweeping shot of a poorly animated Wall of China (with Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy out this year, poor CGI really stands out like a sore thumb), opens the film with exposition text sprawled across the screen. It pretty much indicates the game plan for the film. A simple story (for all of The Great War’s grandstanding, the plot is essentially: man fights monsters), aiming for an Epic tone, but undercooked. At least Pacific Rim worked with what it had, rather than treating its material like a weighty Asian answer to King Arthur. The story zips ahead briskly, totally unaware of the importance of pace. What really attracted me to this movie, apart from the Asian relevance, was the mystery. Matt Damon stumbles across a legendary battle between the Chinese Empire and… something. I was expecting a tension-filled thriller building up the ‘something’, as Matt Damon tried to get answers from nervous soldiers, half of whom had never met the beasts before themselves. Instead, the monsters are introduced in the first twenty minutes. I expect this kind of rushed monster reveal from a B Movie director with no control over his own movie due to a greedy production company, misunderstanding the importance of a decent build-up. The foreshadowing doesn’t get much better than Matt Damon killing one in the dark, by swinging his blade in panic. And when a movie monster is introduced by someone accidentally killing it, it doesn’t really set up a creature we should be afraid of. The end result is a pretty rote villain, a legion of dinosaur/dragon red shirts. Some form of culture is embedded into the antagonists, but on the whole, they are just plot devices. Sadly, when they are meant to the main attraction of the film, it means that everything else just falls to pieces around it. If flashy fight scenes entertain you (bungee jumping women spear the monsters climbing the wall), then perhaps you will find salvation in the bottom of this movie, but when so much more is available to the writers, every interesting kill feels like a small benefit in a large mess.
Whenever a fumbled pace is present in a movie, like a narrative disease, other symptoms are usually present. Hack writing devices (“I lost the keys to the cell!” is the explanation of why Damon is in a certain place at a certain time), and thin characters emerge from the chaotic mess. Matt Damon plays the hero, a figure whose motivations change, depending on where the narrative flows. He starts as a rogue with an Irish accent, but as soon as his heart softens (inexplicably quick), he begins coming down with a case of doing the right thing in the nick of time. His broad hero role brings down the film from almost every angle. It is clear what director Yimou is going for, a charismatic cross between Han Solo and Legolas, whose skills with archery and charm make him a strong adventurer protagonist. But it is hard to see who benefits from this stock hero figure placed in the middle of the film. He gives the audience a boring stereotype to root for, as well as killing off any chance of an interesting female character in Jing Tian. There is a brief moment where things are looking up when the strong-willed female turns out to be Commander of the Wall. Some feminist badassery at hand? Finally, The Great Wall does something right. But her role is frustratingly out-dated, in the sense that her awesome fighting skills are simply written in to make it all the more impressive when Matt Damon begins wooing her. While needless romance is avoided, the lingering looks between Damon and Tian are just as disastrous to the feminism trying to emerge from this film’s wreckage. Not even Matt Damon benefits from the stock character, the actor trapped in a role he surpassed years ago with Bourne. He feels lost in the story, fighting for depth in a production that refuses to allow him any. The only character who shines is Pedro Pascal’s sarcastic best friend character, who is not beneath stabbing his mates in the back, yet still coming across as a likeable rogue in the process.
Final Verdict: The Great Wall is a crying shame of a movie wasting a strong cast and big budget on a bloated mess of CGI fights and rushed pacing.