Starring Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau, Luhan, Jing Tian
Directed by Yimou Zhang
The Great Wall is great – as in big – with star-power (Matt Damon and Jing Tian), firepower (it’s directed by Zhang Yimou, who brought us Hero, and House of Flying Daggers), and visual force (it’s in 3D/IMAX). It’s also the most expensive Chinese film ever made.
But is the movie great – as in good? I’ll get to that in a sec. First let’s see what it’s about and whether or not horror fans will like it. It’s rated PG-13 and the monsters are all fairly cartoony-looking in spite of having multiple eyes, razor-teeth and goopy green blood. They resemble Middle Earth Orcs and they move en masse, not unlike zombie hordes – there is no distinct personality to any of them.
This epic fantasy-adventure follows William (Damon), a European medieval mercenary who is in China during the Song Dynasty on a quest to find gunpowder, which he plans to bring back to western civilization. This supernatural substance “turns air into fire” and is sure to revolutionize warfare. As he searches, along with his wisecracking sidekick Tovar (“Game of Thrones’” Pedro Pascal), William is attacked out of nowhere by a colossal beast. He quickly kills it, which in due time leads him to an unexpected fate: fighting flocks of the legendary Tao Tie. These are ferocious animals who emerge once every 60 years to dine on the locals. William and Tovar are not locals, but they have no choice… it’s fight or die. But before they can whet their appetites, the Tao Tie they must breech the Great Wall of China.
William and Tovar arouse suspicion after news of their exploits reach the Nameless Order, the squad trained to the fight the Tao Tie. They do not believe that a foreigner could so quickly best their beast, and so they bring the men up to stand before the Council to explain how they killed the marauding monster with such ease. Their answer is not accepted – and they are taken prisoner. While in the dungeon, they meet another westerner. His name is Ballard (Willem Dafoe) and he seems to know an awful lot… can he be trusted, or not? Whatever the case, William and Tovar get a chance to prove their mettle and are eventually unshackled and allowed to join the fray.
After the western mercenaries hook up with the Chinese military and are isolated with the troops atop the gigantic stone fortress behind the Wall, we get to see some martial arts… sort of. Zhang’s trademark elegantly choreographed battles, real stunt work, and authentic locations are marred by the egregious overuse of CGI and over-eager editing. There are some death-defying acrobatics, impressive flying battle axes and other weaponry, plus the menacing monsters themselves. Though the Tao Tie are indeed vicious, bloodthirsty beasts, there is no actual blood (except for their own green-goo, as previously noted).
William strikes up an alliance and mild flirtation with the beautiful, no-nonsense Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian). Their chemistry is tepid at best. When it comes to Ballard, Dafoe is also tepid at best… there’s not a whole lot fire here from anyone. What’s more, the logic seems a bit off. It turns out the reason William was able to subdue the random Tao Tie he killed early in the story, was because he was carrying a magnetic stone. Everyone marvels over the rarity of this rock and oohs and ahhs over how it will revolutionize travel by acting as a compass. In reality, Chinese civilization first made compasses from magnetic stones in the Han dynasty (AD100). By the timepoint of the movie (between AD960 and AD1127), the compass had been widely used in navigation and so it wouldn’t have been such a huge revelation.
The screenplay is credited to six writers including Max Brooks (World War Z), Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies) and Edward Zwick (TV drama guy), which explains why there isn’t a strong voice – then again, it’s right in line with the Eastern philosophy that teamwork by a cohesive unit will always win the day. To me The Great Wall comes across more like an extravaganza cartoon than a bona fide feature film. (Actually, there are a few simply-animated sequences, which are there in order to tell the Tao Tie’s backstory.) Except for a few obligatory character beats, the flick focuses firmly on the Nameless Order. It’s not a bad movie; it’s just kind of “there.”
The Great Wall proudly presents a barrage of battles you might want to see for the 3D… but there is nothing scary or striking about the movie itself.