Review: The Great Wall
PLOT: In Song dynasty era China, a roving mercenary (Matt Damon) and his partner (Pedro Pascal) are interrupted in their quest for an elusive black powder by a supernatural attack that ends with them prisoners of a Chinese Military order stationed on the Great Wall. There, they discover that every sixty years, the country is attacked by supernatural beasts that the wall has been built to repel, and that should the beasts reach a populated area, they could lead to the end of humanity.
REVIEW: As the film industry in China grows to rival that of the U.S, Zhang Yimou’s THE GREAT WALL is a big experiment. Can they make a tent-pole movie that can compete with major studio efforts, packed with enough A-list talent to bring in the worldwide foreign audience? A co-production with Legendary, a company that’s had huge success in China in their own right with WARCRAFT, THE GREAT WALL is an ambitious but silly effort.
Star Matt Damon is badly miscast as the Western hero, a mercenary who finds himself fighting alongside the Chinese on the titular wall. Adopting an accent that comes and goes (is it Irish?) Damon has never been such an ill-fit on the big screen before. A very contemporary actor, he doesn’t have the thing needed to make a star believable in a period epic. Someone like Christian Bale, Russell Crowe or Tom Cruise might have been able to get away with this. Wearing period garb that’s only a few steps removed from tights, with his hair swept into a ponytail, Damon almost looks embarrassed and certainly doesn’t look like he belongs fighting CGI monsters with a bow and arrow.
Much has been made about how THE GREAT WALL follows a “white saviour” narrative, but truth be told that isn’t so. Damon is more of an observer to the action, like Antonio Banderas in THE 13TH WARRIOR. Sure, he’s a little more bad ass than most and gets more screen-time, but you could have totally excised him from the script and it wouldn’t have been that different, with Jing Tian’s Commander Lin more of the lead, with even her potential romance with Damon taking a back seat.
The influence of “Game of Thrones” is clear throughout, with the whole narrative playing like “The Night’s Watch” in China, with Jing Tian part of “The Nameless Order", who are stationed on the wall for life and can’t leave once they’ve made the commitment. Not to mention, “Game of Thrones’s” Pedro Pascal plays Damon’s sidekick, while series composer Ramin Djawadi does the score.
In addition to Jing Tian, several other big Chinese stars are on-board, with mega-icon Andy Lau getting the biggest part as Lin’s adviser, although it’s a drag this iconic action star (who’s like the Tom Cruise of Asia) is stuck playing a mostly action-less part. Other Mainland actors like Zhang Hanyu and Eddie Peng have suspiciously small roles, making me wonder if a longer cut of this exists in Asia. All of the Chinese heroes are upstanding, as usual for films coming from there (very much like Yimou’s last film, THE FLOWERS OF WAR), while Willem Dafoe is the only squirrely character, being a longtime prisoner of the fort, a convenient way for Lau and Tian’s characters to know English.
Technically, this rivals any Hollywood tentpole, with the CGI critters being well rendered, even if their design isn’t terribly imaginative, nor is the big secret that finally allows the heroes a glimmer of hope that they can be stopped. Yimou’s action scenes are well shot, but the wire-work is poor for Tian’s character, a far cry from his Wu Xia classics, HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS.
Overall, THE GREAT WALL is an acceptable watch if you’re bent on seeing something this weekend, but have exhausted all other options. It’s probably best left for the Netflix cue and definitely too by-the-numbers to really impress an audience that routinely sees better fantasy epics on HBO whenever “Game of Thrones” is on.
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