Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Willem Dafoe
Director: Zhang Yimou
Running Time: 103 mins
The Great Wall is an American/Chinese film about a pair of Western mercenaries in north China searching for gunpowder who come across the mighty Great Wall, where they help the Chinese soldiers to fight off a merciless army of monsters.
You’d think that the directing talents of Zhang Yimou crossed with Matt Damon and a $150m production budget, The Great Wall would have a spectacular blockbuster. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case. Although the film does eventually get into an enjoyable stride, it’s a generally bland and dumb action movie that’s just not interesting or intense enough to always fully hold your attention, with an underwhelming story, disappointing visuals and iffy dialogue throughout.
In truth, I wasn’t really expecting much from this film. Yes, it may have big names like Zhang Yimou and Matt Damon working on it, but The Great Wall works more as a symbolic film of China’s enormous movie industry finally working hand in hand with Hollywood.
As a result, there are a lot of positives that both sides bring to the table, but the fact of the matter is that The Great Wall doesn’t have any real passion behind it, it’s really just as a huge blockbuster to rake in money in both Chinese and Western markets.
Above all, the story here just isn’t up to scratch. The film generally focuses on Matt Damon’s character, a Western mercenary who ends up fighting for the Chinese on the Great Wall, as well as his Spanish sidekick played by Pedro Pascal, and Commander Lin, a Chinese general played by Jing Tian.
In general, none of the characters are that well-developed or particularly interesting to follow. This movie never had me on the edge of my seat cheering for the heroes to save the day, nor did it ever grab me in some of the quieter, more dramatic moments where the film introduces themes about the culture divide, why people fight in war, and Chinese folklore.
There are occasionally some moments of intrigue, and the relationship between Matt Damon and Jing Tian’s characters ultimately proves a pretty entertaining watch, but in general, The Great Wall isn’t the movie to have you truly engrossed by an intelligent and unpredictable story, and that’s the main reason that it’s just not quite as good as it could have been.
Another issue that I have with this movie comes in the form of its visuals. Now, the CGI and special effects are actually very impressive, and light years ahead of anything you see in domestic Chinese movies, but I can’t help but feel that they’re handled in a very predictable and dull way.
The enemies of the film, the Tao Tie, aren’t anything more than a group of dull-coloured, faceless monsters that don’t have any real dramatic threat above being big and having sharp teeth.
One thing that this film does try to do is emphasise the enormous scale of the Great Wall, and in that, also the enormous scale of the Tao Tie army attacking it. But again, as we see so many extreme long shots of the Tao Tie hurling themselves at the wall, they just feel more and more like a pointless collection of CGI monsters, and not the fearsome beasts that they could really be.
Along with the monsters, I was disappointed by how bland this film looked simply because it’s Zhang Yimou behind the camera, the man who made visual masterpieces like Hero, House Of Flying Daggers and Raise The Red Lantern. Although the film does eventually get a bit more colourful in its final act, the colour palette in the opening stages is so dull that the film is reduced to dressing the Chinese soldiers in brightly colour-coded Power Rangers uniforms to add a bit of light to proceedings, something else that really got on my nerves throughout the movie.
But as I said at the beginning, there is fun to be had with The Great Wall. In general, its story is underwhelming and its visuals are unappealing, but what it does do well is smash two filmmaking cultures together to make an action-packed and well-paced blockbuster with a slightly different and refreshing vibe to it. We haven’t seen a film of the scale produced by China before, and we haven’t seen a film with this setting and topic produced by Hollywood before, and in that there’s a lot to enjoy, which is why I’m going to give The Great Wall a 7.1.