Film Review: Damon’s THE GREAT WALL Is A Great Mess
It may have taken the ancient Chinese 1,700 years to build a 5,000 mile-long magnificent Great Wall to stave off enemies, but it only took the filmmakers of The Great Wall about 12 months to ruin 95 minutes of runtime to scare away audiences. Although the film is directed by Chinese master Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), and American icon Matt Damon, the end product is nowhere near the realm of excitement that these talented figures promise.
When we first encounter Damon as European mercenary William, other than wondering the provenance of his half-baked accent, you see him escaping pursuit by Mongolian bandits and later slaying a horrendous creature the locals know as “Taoties.” William is joined by an appropriately wily Spaniard, Tovar (played by Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones fame), on a quest to steal a legendary “black powder” from the technologically-advanced cultures of the East.
The rest is given away entirely by the overly exposed trailer: the Chinese armies that the scallywag Europeans want to rob have problems of their own, namely extraterrestrial monsters sent by the Gods in a green meteor as a punishment. Enter the unwitting heroes.
An impossibly trite redemption story litters the otherwise amusing battle sequences that follow, with Damon’s William, a former scoundrel, a lost soul, a man at bay, finding meaning in doing the right thing, discovering his true good self, and saving the newly appointed and perfectly virtuous if long-suffering General Lin (Jing Tian). Some call it Whitewashing, I call it horrendous filmmaking.
Nothing much else of note happens that you do not expect. Warriors make noble sacrifices in the name of culturally misappropriated stereotypes that have to do with codes like “trust” and “honor.” Bandits try to make an escape with the loot but end up in the monster’s belly or worse (William Defoe lazily portrays another European baddy that you hope is soon vanquished). Capital folk are too stupid to see the dangers that are coming but really are only there to be saved by the cleverer heroes.
This being a Zhang Yimou movie, you’ll at least be treated to a visual feat here or there. Panoramic shots of the digitally rendered Great Wall are a thing of beauty, and some of the fast-to-slow sequences, particularly those involving projectiles, are exciting to watch. But even here the film’s effects, much like its storylines, end up jumbled, garbled, and confused. There is too much going on at the same thing that nothing is going on, and the technically impressive Chinese prove to be too much so, with inventive but silly contraptions they use to fight a powerful enemy from outer space cluttering a landscape that is already polluted with one-to-many critters.
Fundamentally, The Great Wall’s problem is that it has no idea what kind of movie it is or should be. It tries to be a horror flick (those Taoties springing at you from the mist like in the worst part of Alien movies), an epic fantasy story (with cheap siege sequences clearly reminiscing of The Two Towers), and a dull redemption romance movie all at once (think Pearl Harbor, yikes). It ends up being none and nothing more than a Frankenstein-like amalgam of those genres.
If you can get past the cringe-worthy dialogue, the breakneck speed at which one battle scene gives way to an unexplained next, and the unapologetically clichéd development of the central characters, you’ll be entertained for as long as the popcorn lasts, wowed at one or two climatic action sequences and their recurring effects towards the end, and then forced into forgetting it the moment the lights come back on and the Wall fades into history.