The Great Wall
Director: Zhang Yimou
Screenwriter: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Rated PG-13 | 104 Minutes
Release Date: February 17, 2017
One would expect something like The Great Wall to live up to its title. History tells us that The Great Wall of China was constructed with the purpose of defense, border control, and trade regulation. In Zhang Yimou‘s film, we learn that it had another purpose: to protect the nation of China from the Tao Tei, giant green scaly beasts that have ravaged the country for ages. This would not be the first time that a film has depicted history and mix it with myth and monsters.
Of course, one of the biggest concerns surrounding The Great Wall is the blatant whitewashing that has been a part of the marketing campaign since the very beginning. Matt Damon has been the face of this film. Despite the film’s majority Chinese cast, Chinese director, and Chinese financiers, the film still believed it needed to have a big name in order to be a big seller.
But putting all of that aside, there is some entertainment value in the film. Just don’t expect much of it. Check out my full review below.
The Great Wall opens with a little exposition that explains the time it took to construct the wall and why it was built. According to legend, many battles took place near this wall, and this film will tell us the legend of how two nomadic warriors, William (Damon) and Tavor (Pedro Pascal) helped save the nation of China from giant green scaly monsters called the Tao Tei. The two happen to slay one of these beasts and cut off its arm to use as a bargaining chip. When they are taken prisoner by The Nameless Order, a group of elite soldiers who defend the wall, a new horde of Tao Tei attack, and they suddenly realize getting the black powder and escaping will not be easy.
These soldiers are efficient, with the group being broken down to archery, horseback riding, acrobatic attacks, melee, and siege. It is there that William discovers a newfound purpose in life, while Tavor still is motivated by greed. The Tao Tei situation continues to worsen. After General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) is killed by one of the beasts Commander Lin Mae (Jian Tian) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) lead The Nameless Order and seek to find a way to exterminate the beasts, for good.
It’s difficult to pinpoint if the film really suffers from the white savior trope or if its Chinese propaganda. It teeters back and forth from Damon saving the day to Tian saving the day. It is so conflicted about it, that it attempts to bring these two together by shoehorning a message of “trust.” But credit to Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy‘s script for not turning Mae into a damsel in distress or a generic love interest. In fact, she is one of the only characters that is fun to watch.
The major problem with this film is it narratively falls flat. The one-dimensional characters have unearned moments. No one is surprised by William choosing to stay and fight, while Tovar decides to run away. Even when there is an attempt at redemption, the film is in such a rush to get to the next action sequence that it virtually goes unnoticed. There is simply no time to get to know these characters. Every chance we get, the film takes us to another battle. Attempts to alleviate all the action with humor or pissing contests seem completely unnecessary. To make matters worse, the film continues to add characters well after the second act and expects us to sympathize with them.
There is nothing original about The Great Wall, either. In fact, there are hints of The Lord of the Rings‘ Battle of Helms Deep. But what separates the battles in The Great Wall from the others is the ingenuity. The battalions and soldiers are separated by solid deep colors. Archers draped in red fire their arrows, while the acrobats leap from their pedestals at the top of the wall down below to stab the Tao Tei. It does look beautiful, and it certainly fits Yimou’s vision. However, The Great Wall cannot match the awe-inspiring spectacle that is Hero and House of Flying Daggers.
That’s what makes The Great Wall so disappointing. Nothing makes any sense in this film. It’s not so much that it defies physics, it’s more of the humans and the tao tei all making equally terrible decisions throughout the film. Of course, it tries to justify all of that with an exciting action sequence. But it’s not enough to overlook the fact that The Great Wall is all style over substance.