THE GREAT WALL ½
2017, R, 103 mins.
Matt Damon as William Garin / Willem Dafoe as Ballard / Pedro Pascal as Pero Tovar / Andy Lau as Wang Junshi / Tian Jing as General Lin Mei / Hanyu Zhang as General Shao / Eddie Peng as General Wu / Lin Gengxin as General Chen / Ryan Zheng Kai as General Deng / Xuan Huang as Commander Deng / Lu Han as Peng Yong / Cheney Chen as Imperial Officer / Numan Acar as Najid
Directed by Zhang Yimou / Written by Max Brooks, Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick, and Tony Gilroy
I have a history
degree, and as far back as I can remember to my university days I learned
nothing about giant man-eating iguana creatures attacking the Great Wall of
China hundreds of years ago.
I even consulted
Wikipedia just to be sure...nope.
Now, of course I
kid, because THE GREAT WALL is not trying to pass itself off as a
historical epic about its famous titular structure.
It's more of a LORD OF THE RINGS styled fantasy fused with history,
and it's also the most expensive English language film made in China in
that country's history (over $150 million by some estimates).
Fused to that budget is considerable talent both in front of and
behind the camera. The film
includes an auspicious filmmaker at the helm in the form of Zhang Yimou (HERO,
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, and RAISE THE RED LANTERN) as well as a relative
who's-who of A-list American screenwriters (like Tony Gilroy and Edward
Zwick). The cast has an eclectic range of talented Chinese
performers as well as the likes of Matt Damon (more on his inclusion in a
bit), whose action film pedigree hardly needs embellishment. On paper and with ample financial resources at its disposal,
THE GREAT WALL should have been a rousing and immersive effort for all
THE GREAT WALL isn't the stirring showcase reel for its lead star and
proven filmmaker, seeing as the resulting film suffers from stiff
screenwriting, mediocre character dynamics, middling visual effects, and
an overall momentum that seriously appears to have petered out by about
the halfway point. What we're
ultimately left with is a barely passable B-grade monster movie that
should have transcended to much higher qualitative levels considering the
ample resources employed here. The
makers of THE GREAT WALL certainly, no doubt, had grand ambitions with
their underlining material, but their execution of said material is
That, and Matt
Damon is six ways to Sunday miscast here (again, more on that in a bit) as
a European mercenary named William that pillages the lands of ancient
China with his partner in arms Tovar (a more serviceable Pedro Pascal) in
search of the illusive "black powder."
During an early skirmish with rival bandits, William and Torvar have a
rather shocking standoff with an unknown monster, but they emerge
victorious and manage to take the beast's arm as a trophy.
As they continue on their travels they stumble upon, yes, the Great
Wall of China, which is ruled over by a secret military sec known as
"The Nameless Order", led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu)
and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau). The
two bandits are immediately taken prisoners and hope for the future seems
Of course, all is
not well at the wall, which is driven home by a large scale attack
perpetrated by thousands of the same monsters that tormented William and Tovar
earlier. Realizing that they
need all the assistance they can muster, Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian)
decides to grant William and Tovar their freedom after they demonstrate
their unique skill-sets in defending the wall against the monsters, but
both only seem interested in trading for black powder so they can be on
their way. However, when it's
revealed that the creatures have a weakness and that vaster hordes and
attacks will follow that threaten the Chinese way of life as a whole, the
battle hardened William must confront his own selfish business interests
and weigh them against the greater good of helping his new trading
Zhang Yimou is
incapable of making a bad looking film, and THE GREAT WALL, to its
esteemed credit, is a sensational visual odyssey for the most part that's
arresting to engage in. The
opening battle sequence of the film not only shows genuine creative flair
and impressive set pieces and stunts, but it's done with a classical
elegance and clarity that's frankly lost on most modern action directors.
The vivacious costume design - showcasing the Chinese army with
varying color palettes delineating rank and position - is exquisite, not
to mention the rich and lush cinematography that impressively evokes a
time of place of ancient legend. For
the most part, the film's sizeable budget looks like it made its way on
the silver screen and it becomes relatively easy in the opening stages of
the story to get wrapped up in the visual pageantry of it all.
regrettably take a downward turn for the worse as the film creeps towards
its middle third, during which time the plot grinds to a relative halt as
it feebly makes an effort to define its various characters.
The central bromance team-up of William and Tovar is embellished
with cookie cutter strokes, leaving the actors to banter back in forth in
the form of stiffly written one liners that would feel dated in an action film
from twenty years ago. That,
and Damon and Pascal have very little merc chemistry here, which stymies the
narrative's later efforts to shoehorn in some existentialist conflict
between them. Then there's
William's bonding with Lin, which acts as an all-too-predictable catalyst
for his achingly preordained turn from opportunistic heel to brave freedom
fighter alongside the Chinese. Very
little of anything that transpires in THE GREAT WALL feels fresh or
invigorating; the plot mechanically and dutifully proceeds along a
predetermined path with eye rolling monotony.
The really large
elephant in the room with this film is the multiple accusations levied by critics accusing it of white washing and perpetuating white savoir
myths. Now, white washing has
been - and largely remains - a damning issue that has plagued Hollywood
films, especially for how roles that should have gone to actors of color
have been hijacked by better known Caucasian performers.
That's fundamentally wrong. However,
THE GREAT WALL deserves a free pass in the sense that William, as a
European persona here, was never intended to be played by a Chinese actor.
Furthermore, William is not so much a white savior to the Chinese
in their arduous battles versus the creatures than he is a white ally to
their cause that never really single handedly rescues their culture as a
whole. THE GREAT WALL is guilty of many things, but white washing
isn't among them.
Yet, the film is
beyond guilty of utterly squandering the talents of action film royalty
like Damon here by given him such a lame duck throwaway role.
The character of William is also not done any favors by Damon's
performance itself, which is so mannered, monosyllabic, and ill at ease
that he looks frankly confused as to what to do from scene to scene.
Damon's laughably fractured accent throughout - which, I guess, is
Irish, but sometimes sounds English and then later South African - further
taints this character's overall effectiveness.
I understand the desire from the makers to want a box office draw
and proven actor like Damon to have his mug on movie posters to help sell
this film to North American audiences, but he barely shows up here.
I've never seen the actor so bafflingly lacking in charisma and
personality in a film before.
THE GREAT WALL has no business whatsoever being as lackluster and routine as it is, and when it's not wasting Damon's presence it places him within an overall storyline that barely achieves lift-off. And once you experience the initial thrill of seeing the human versus monster battles, each new one that comes suffers from a repetitive sameness (the creatures themselves pathetically lack imagination on a conceptual level, which is hammered home by the film's acceptable to below average CG effects). It's funny, but for all of the pre-release white washing controversy that dogged THE GREAT WALL (and was ignorantly unfounded and perpetuated), this film's greatest sin is its rampant dullness.
Plus, my university history textbooks lied to me about his period of Chinese history. Thanks for nothing, higher education!