Review - 'The Great Wall'
Short, simple, dumb and fun. Those are the four best words to describe what's in store for you when you sit down to watch Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall. This film is, for better or worse, the least taxing movie I've seen in a long time and is over before you've even had enough time to think about whether you have enjoyed it or not.
The Great Wall follows William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) two mercenaries seeking black powder. They come across the Great Wall of China and discover that its inhabitants have been preparing for years for an inevitable attack by a huge swarm of creatures called the Tao Tei. Having killed one during the night, Garin decides to join in the battle.
The Great Wall is a movie that gets right to the point and never takes any time to linger, instead opting to barrel headfirst into action sequence after action sequence. This is probably because its plot is so basic that there really isn't anything to do or say in-between. I actually found the film's length of 104 minutes to be merciful and I can honestly say that I was never bored. Still, not being bored doesn't forgive the unoriginal plot and the downright strange performances by all of our non-Chinese characters.
The plot essentially boils down to being a neutered Chinese version of Starship Troopers but with crazy acrobatics and lots and lots of siege weapons. I know what you're thinking: that sounds like a damn good time! And it most certainly can be, but every time I started to enjoy parts of this film, there was always something working against it that would pull me out of the experience.
One thing that definitely wasn't working in the film's favor was the constant identity crisis it was struggling with. This film is a very odd amalgamation of Chinese and American sensibilities, so much so that it doesn't really have a definable identity. I would say at least 30-40% of the dialogue is in Chinese and the rest of it is in very unnaturally-spoken English.
I know there's a chance that it's not his fault, but I'm really not sure what kind of accent Matt Damon is going for here. I was going to attempt to describe it but I really can't, all I can say is that whatever it is, it's not right. Damon plays William Garin, an insanely skilled warrior who has fought in many battles. Even though The Great Wall was directed by Zhang Yimou, I couldn't shake the white savior vibe I kept getting from his character. It bugged me that the people on the wall had been training for this specific event all of their lives and William comes in and basically takes over the whole operation because he happens to be highly proficient at killing the Tao Tei. Oddly enough, despite everything working against him, I still couldn't help but like William, but maybe that's just because of all the good will Matt Damon has accumulated over the years.
Pedro Pascal plays Pero Tovar, who is William's partner. Tovar is a more conflicted character that isn't as willing to help the Chinese in the fight and just wants to get out of dodge with the black powder they were seeking in the first place. Pascal has the least awkward performance out of the Westerners, but his character still isn't all that compelling. Helping him is Sir Ballard, who is played by Willem Dafoe in an almost completely throw-away role. He plays a character who has spent years of his life in the wall against his will and sees Tovar and William as a way out. Jing Tian plays Commander Lin Mae of the Crane Troop, and she's pretty awesome. While some of her line delivery could use some work, I forgive it mainly because she had to interact in English with Matt Damon's character. I honestly think this film would have been so much better if she were the main character. Finally we have Andy Lau, who is underutilized here as Wang, a strategist and war counselor.
The action is undeniably one of the main draws of The Great Wall. Zhang Yimou is known for creating elegantly choreographed, and highly distinctive action. If you've seen Hero or House of Flying Daggers you will have an idea of what to expect here. The difference here is the over-reliance on computer-generated imagery. Still, even though The Great Wall is drenched in excessive amounts of CGI, the action sequences are still pleasing to the eye and you can always tell what is going on. That said, if you can't stand action that is over-the-top and ridiculous, this is most certainly not the film for you. I wasn't completely invested in the action sequences, but I can't deny that they were entertaining and unlike anything I have seen in any other film, which is most certainly due to Zhang Yimou's unique touch.
While the western influence, derivative plot and noticeable CGI drag The Great Wall down, I still had a decent time with the film and it only cost me an inconsequential hour-and-a-half to sit through. That said, unless you are a die-hard Zhang Yimou fan, I would recommend you wait until it's available to rent before checking this one out.