The Great Wall Review
Directed By: Zhang Yimou
Written By: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy
Runtime: 104 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence
Matt Damon – William
Tian Jing – Commander Lin Mae
Pedro Pascal – Tovar
Willem Dafoe – Ballard
Andy Lau – Strategist Wang
Hanyu Zhang – General Shao
Lu Han – Peng Yong
The Great Wall marks the first English-language picture for filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who was responsible for such films as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, which actually gained a strong following and some decent success in the United States. Unfortunately, The Great Wall is a painfully mediocre mess and not at all worthy of his talents as a filmmaker. The film is weighed down by messy editing, poor character development, and a dull, uninteresting plot.
The story begins with a band of Western mercenaries, led by William (Damon) and his Spaniard cohort Tovar (Pascal), who have gone searching to the far reaches of Asia in search of a mythical weapon known as blackpowder (gunpowder) for their employers. After the last of their group narrowly avoids capture from a group of desert bandits, another wounded member is taken away at night by a vicious reptilian creature. After the bandits give chase again, William and Tovar flee and run smack dab into the Great Wall of China, which is under strict military control by the Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Zhang). After seeing William and Tovar in possession of a severed limb of the creature they encountered, Shao and Strategist Wang (Lau) opt to take William and Tovar prisoner, while Commander Lin Mae (Jing) wants them executed. Unfortunately for the Nameless Order, the severed limb is a symbol of the return of a vicious, dreadful enemy: an army of relentless overgrown, vicious monsters called the Tao Tei. The Nameless Order is in fact an elite army unit in service of the Emperor of China that’s been training for 60 years to meet the Tao Tei in battle. The Great Wall is essentially the last and only line of defense to protect China and it’s people from annihilation.
Shortly after their arrival, William and Tovar witness the Nameless Order in action firsthand, fighting against the monstrous Tao Tei. In the heat of battle, the William and Tovar manage to free their bonds and help the army fend off the Tao Tei, and they are essentially conscripted in service of the army as a result. William soon ingratiates himself to the Nameless Order, especially Tian Jing, with his archery skills and experience. Tovar is only interested in possibly locating the blackpowder, which the Nameless Order has in large supply, and leaving China for good. However, William is gradually drawn into the conflict of the Nameless Order, offering more of his help and knowledge on how to hunt the Tao Tei and possibly end the monsters’ threat against China.
Zhang Yimou is a great director, and The Great Wall is not without some of his personal charms. There are certainly some sequences and shots in The Great Wall that look inspires. There’s an intricate tracking shot that takes the viewers through the bowels of the wall to the very top as the army prepares for battle. It’s hard not to enjoy the stylish action visuals at many points, but that’s about the most the film has going for it, other than it’s rather abbreviated running time.
The early encounter with the Tao Tei is very obscured. It’s a choppily edited sequence where it’s hard to even make out what is happening or going on. There’s more than one sequence like this, where the editing is choppy, or the inclusion of such a scene feels wasted. It’s either that, or it seems there is a scene or some story beats missing that would’ve explained how point A gets to point C.
Matt Damon is is painfully out of place in this film as the lead character, and it’s not necessarily because of his race. All TV Tropes debates aside, his character has this weird, bizarre accent where it sounds like he’s trying to sound American, Scottish and Irish at the same time. Or maybe, it was Damon attempting to utilize an accent while doing audio dialogue replacement. Either way, it sounds awkward. His character arc, going from a jaded mercenary to a proud soldier who has finally found a cause he can truly believe in is not one that Damon, Yimou and a fleet of writers [besides the three screenwriters, Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall herskovitz all received story credits for the film] are not able to believably sell.
Even for the Chinese cast, they have very little in the way genuine character development to speak of. The only Chinese member of the cast who comes off as slightly more than a cookie cutter character is Tian Jing’s Lin Mae; the second-in-command of the Nameless order, who later has an obligatory, bland romantic subplot with William’s character. None of the other members of the Nameless Order really get the chance to breathe or live as actual characters. Even the great Andy Lau as Strategist Wang only seems to exist in the plot as a tertiary, expository character. Lu Han has a hackneyed friendship subplot with Damon’s character with a weak payoff.
The only really entertaining performance in the film is Pascal’s Tovar. The Tovar character is sort of the obligatory comic relief and sidekick to the main guy, but Pascal brings an undeniable charm and charisma to the film whenever he’s onscreen. Some of his attempts at pithy one-liners don’t always land, but the ones that do are generally amusing at least. Willem Dafoe is wasted here as another Western mercenary who has been forced to stay captive at the wall and hopes to escape and steal the blackpowder with William and Tovar.
As the film’s big bad, the Tao Tei simply aren’t compelling. Their attacks on the wall all generally look and come off the same. They appear to be numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but they are ultimately held back on a number of occasions. As villains, there’s not much to invest in them. They are led in a hive mind by a Queen, and overtly stated as a metaphor for ravenous, unchecked greed. These creatures do have two weaknesses. One weakness is painfully obvious and easy to figure out. The other weakness is ridiculous and contrived.