The Great Wall | Yimou Zhang | February 17, 2017
The Great Wall is the latest from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, the director behind acclaimed works such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Only, with a hefty budget of $150 million, The Great Wall isn’t just any production. This price tag makes it the most expensive Chinese film ever made. All of this makes the fact that it’s Matt Damon you see as the leading man in the film’s posters (enjoy above!) even more jarring. Well, that’s because China worked with the U.S. on this co-production and wanted to maximize box office draw between cinemas both East and West.
The story begins with William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal of Game Of Thrones fame), traders on the hunt for black powder with a group of mercenaries. After running from bandits, they take shelter in a cave, but at night they’re picked off one by one by a mysterious monster. Of course, only William and Tovar survive the attack, since William is quick enough to cut off the beast’s giant green hand. They push forward, eventually making it to the Great Wall, where they’re taken captive by Chinese soldiers of a secret sect known only as the Nameless Order, whose job is to protect the wall from the same creatures that William just happened to chop up. They bring along the severed hand as proof, and it brings a panic to the warriors that can only mean one thing: war is upon us.
You see, in this story written by a collective trio of writers (Tony Gilroy, Doug Miro, and Carlo Bernard), the Great Wall was built to help keep out these green alien monsters who make their way to the Great Wall for battle every 60 years. The film explains that the alien species known as “Taoties” arrived because of greed from mining explorations, but the explaining is rather nonsensical and lackluster, and early on, you realize the explanation doesn’t quite matter. They come, the military fights them off the best they can, until they discover a way to end them for good. Rinse and repeat.
At the end of the day, The Great Wall serves for us to see Matt Damon and Chinese warriors take on these green lizard monsters and not much else. If you ever wanted to see a giant scissor emerge from a wall to slice the living daylight out of CGI creatures, then maybe this is the movie for you. If you’re looking for an intelligent film, with a tight script, good acting, and just all-around strong filmmaking, well, there are plenty of other options at the theater right now.
As William, Matt Damon looks absolutely lost, giving one of the worst performances of his career. I’m sure he’s wondering why he gave up the role of a lifetime (and a potential Oscar) with Manchester By The Sea, for this. Though, I bet he has a great wall of cash earned from his work here to help him sleep at night. Pedro Pascal is fine as the typical wise-cracking sidekick, but it isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. Then there’s poor Willem Dafoe as Ballard, a European who had ventured into the wall 25 years ago also on the hunt for black power, who has been kept prisoner ever since. Dafoe has no idea what the hell he’s doing in this movie and it’s a shame as he’s too good to be wasted in such a underwritten forgettable role. It’s really quite bad. The Chinese actors (Tian Jing, Andy Lau, and Lu Han) fare much better, although there’s only so much of this script they can salvage).
Many took understandable issue with Damon being cast in a film set in China, as it seemed like he was taking on a role as a “white savior.” I can understand why it would seem so, but it’s actually not quite the case at all when you actually see them film. He comes into the story as a greedy man who would be ready to turn on the Chinese warriors and run off with the black powder in an instant, but through his interactions with Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), Peng Yong (Lu Han), and other members of the army, he learns a lesson or two about nobility, and it’s actually them who change him.
Zhang’s direction offers up some delights such as beautiful costumes and some memorable imagery, but this isn’t nearly enough to make up for the films many, many sins. It takes a rather serious tone (Damon has the same face on the entire way through) when at its core, The Great Wall is just a silly B-movie that probably would be perfectly suitable for late night watching on cable. Its mindless action is an ok way to kill about two hours time, but you’ll forget everything you watched the minute the credits hit.