The Great Wall Movie Review
By: Justin Jasso (@jjasso007)
I think I’d have little argument if I stated that the world is a wondrous place. From sunrises and sunsets, to the blooming of flowers and picturesque moments that just happen, to the aurora borealis. There’s so much to love. Then there are such creations that have never been rivaled such as the Roman baths, Petra, the Incan city of Machu Picchu, to possibly the greatest creation known to man: The Great Wall of China. The Great Wall is 5,500 miles in length and took over 2,000 years to build. We all know of the wall and now, famed Chinese director Yimou Zhang gives us the wall’s purpose with his latest film, The Great Wall.
William Garin (Matt Damon) and his friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are mercenaries in Northern China looking for a “black powder” which could tip the balance of power in European countries to one side or the other. While fleeing from random tribes, they are captured by a military garrison and taken to the Great Wall to be charged in front of General Shao (Hanyu Zhang). Unfortunately, the wall is soon under attack from the Tao Tie, a deadly lizard-like species that long has been trying to invade China. Proving their worth, William and Tovar are allowed to fight alongside the Chinese in this war, earning the respect of Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing). But, with their freedom to roam freely granted during this war, will they return to their mission to get rich, or stay and help the Chinese fight an enemy who, if not stopped here, could take over the world? The final battle lies at the Great Wall.
The Great Wall is the type of film you’d expect to see during the summer blockbuster season, with all of its CGI, epic visuals, and grand scale action sequences. Not in rainy February. It was actually released in China back in December, so maybe it was an early new year film for them, or even earlier Chinese New Year film? All of that aside, this felt like a different style of film coming from director Yimou Zhang, with really nothing in his directing library similar except maybe House of Flying Daggers or Curse of the Golden Flower. Visually, the movie is stunning when we consider the Great Wall, the visual colors and armor of the soldiers, and the attention to detail of even the most intricate aspects such as an arrow. The Tao Tie, on the other hand, are a little too CGI for my personal liking. Plus there’s the lack of variety among the Tao Tie monsters outside of those who protect the “Queen.” The main issue I had with the film was the lack of story. We are thrown right into the beginning of the battle, and it remains the same: battle at the wall with little else happening until the final act of the story. It just felt repetitive for so long, and repetition gets old.
There was a big hoo-ha when it was noted that Matt Damon would be playing the lead role in a film about the Great Wall of China, just as there was when Scarlett Johansson was said to be playing the main role in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell film (I have watched it and no, I won’t tell you about it…yet!). Fortunately, the film does explain, briefly, how he came to China and his purpose, yet I don’t think that was necessarily going to make anyone happy. Damon fits into the role well enough, although the accent he uses could use some work. He has played this action type of role various times throughout the course of his career. This is, by far, not his best work, and definitely not his best film, but it is still manageable. Tian Jing is not really known outside of China, but you’ll be seeing her in more American movies such as the upcoming Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim 2. The script doesn’t necessarily allow her character to show a wide range of emotion, or have those peaks and valleys which we love to see in a character arc, but she is still able to bring out a certain complexity in the character which makes her both interesting and relatable. And Pedro Pascal, who many of you will remember as Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones, finds a few levels within his character, at times appearing as the sidekick and others, as a devious mastermind of his own. He has a few moments in the film that will put a little smile on your face.
Can I fully recommend you go out and watch The Great Wall this weekend? No, I can’t. The story just doesn’t carry enough weight, and the monster Tao Tie are just not quite epic enough of an adversary. Sure, they are formidable, have vast numbers, and are intelligent, but there’ something severely lacking here. The action sequences are fun, and Yimou Zhang brings his well-known artistic stylization to these pieces, but it just isn’t enough to make it a great film. While the action is stylized and we are taken right into the heart of the fighting, it is just missing something that set apart his other films like House of Flying Daggers. Plus, there are so many other potentially interesting characters in the film, yet we focus on William so often that the film becomes skewed in one direction. Visually, the film is amazing, and, like with food, we eat with our eyes first. But there has to be some substance once we bite into the heart of the meal. Unfortunately, this wall isn’t going to hold up in the long run. A better bet this weekend? Go watch John Wick: Chapter 2 instead.