A film review by Craig J. Koban February 26, 2017


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 involved. 



Unfortunately, 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 mournfully lacking. 

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 grim. 

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 partners.   

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.   

Things 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!  


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