Director: Yimou Zhang
Run Time: 103 minutes
Cast: Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, Tian Jing, Pedro Pascal, et al…
Plot (taken from IMDb): European mercenaries searching for black powder become embroiled in the defence of the Great Wall of China against a horde of monstrous creatures.
The Great Wall wants to herald a new shift in filmmaking. The film is a co-production between Hollywood and Chinese companies. China has been an emerging economic superpower over the last decade and Hollywood wants a slice of that action. It’s difficult for Western films to even be shown in China, let alone find an audience making the effort worthwhile, so co-producing a feature between the USA and China makes a lot of sense and may be something we see a lot more of in the next few years. It’s hard to make a case whether the countries working together will prove fruitful when all we have is The Great Wall, however, a film that never moves beyond the realms of mediocrity.
Led by an average Matt Damon performance (albeit with a dodgy Portugese accent), The Great Wall looks and acts like a fantasy action adventure flick from the early 2000s. It’s hard to seperate The Great Wall from the likes of the sub-par sequels to The Mummy. This is a film full of bland, flashy action and not much beyond it. A set of European mercenaries set out to China in order to find (and take home) the famous black powder (gunpowder to us modern types) in order to make a quick buck. When in China they find the country is under siege from a mass of monsters known as the Taotie. The Great Wall wasn’t there to save China from them pesky Mongolians (other barbarians are available), but to defend its people from the menacingly powerful Taotie.
The set-up is quite fun and at times, the execution is pretty good fun, too. You will see thousands of Chinese soldiers atop The Great Wall, separated by different colour armour that acts as a visual clue to which division each soldier is a part of. Along with your standard mix of archers, sword wielders and such you have the magnificent lance users. These women attach themselves to a kind of hoop and ropes that allows them to gracefully flow down the wall and stab the Taotie without getting all that close. Visually, at times, The Great Wall can be rather striking. The battle scenes are big, loud and rather well designed. It’s a shame then, that the Taotie themselves look dumb.
The ugly green alien dogs are wickedly strong and attack in swarms. Indeed, throughout the film, you learn that the Taotie have become stronger and have even begun learning new war manoeuvres, but you can never shake the feeling that they just look stupid. On top of that, little motive for their thousands of years of attacks is given beyond that the Taotie want to feed their queen. It’s hard to take the film seriously when the main antagonists have little motive and look plain dumb. The thing is though, if you’re trying to take The Great Wall seriously, you’re doing it all wrong. There is no nuance to the plot, with a script about as bare-bones as you’re likely to find. The Great Wall is a dumb action film.
There are characters outside of Matt Damon’s William, but other than Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), they add little of any worth to the film. Willem Dafoe and Pedro Pascal tagged along for the ride, but didn’t really need to be there. If you go into The Great Wall expecting a highfalutin script, you’re going to walk away severely dissapointed. If you want to watch a shallow film about people killing monsters, then you’ll likely come away pleased enough. The Great Wall is your classic throwaway action flick. It won’t win you over with its plot, characters or even enemies, but moments of visual splendour are to be found throughout. The Great Wall represents a dynamic between two entirely different filmic cultures that is in its early days. I’m hoping it paves the way for more interesting things to come from the USA and China working together.
The Great Wall is your basic dumb fantasy action flick.