Plunking Matt Damon into the middle of the Song dynasty of China is about the same as putting Kevin Costner in the middle of Sherwood Forest, but adding monsters at least ups the action quotient. The Great Wall does indeed star Matt Damon as Western explorer/bandit William traveling from … a land where the people speak perfect American English long before America existed, to China with a band of mercenaries in search for “black powder” (aka gunpowder). Pursued by another band of bandits, the group stops to rest one night and are attacked by … something. Only William and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) survive, with William cutting the arm off of the lizard-like monster.
Finding their way to the Great Wall of the title, they are captured by the Chinese soldiers and are prepared to be put to death but the arm and William’s skills with a bow and arrow spare their lives. Unfortunately, they seem to have stirred the monsters, bringing them to the wall a week earlier than expected, leading to a massive battle, strategies, betrayals and another battle to save the world from the encroaching horde.
The Great Wall certainly has spectacle and action and effects and production design to spare, but nothing ever seems to mesh as well as one would hope. A lot of that has to do with the film’s production in general, being an effects-driven blockbuster filmed entirely in China by a director making his English-language debut saddled with a decidedly American actor. A good actor, but one who was cast solely to make the film palatable for American audiences (or at least English-speaking audiences). The film’s dialog is a major issue too, with a lot of if written in the most basic of basics and delivered often with little emotion. The relationship between William and Tovar is ripe for comedy, and a lot of the one-liners point in that direction, but the delivery is just bland.
The film also takes itself much too seriously. The movie really could have used some of the over-the-top characteristics of other films like Kung Fu Hustle and Shoalin Soccer. Director Yimou Zhang even borrows quite a bit from his own Hero but The Great Wall is still missing the fantastical elements, even with the monsters. There are some amazing moments during the battles, like the women warriors bungee jumping from the wall to battle the monsters, that give you hope for more over-the-top moments to come, but the battles are fairly standard. The monsters are interesting, with large mouths and eyes on their shoulders (which seem much too easy to hit), and some of them are equipped with armored umbrella like appendages used like shields to protect their queen. And if the scenes of monsters piling on each other to scale the wall reminds of the zombies in World War Z, that film’s writer had a hand in this film’s script.
As far as the cast, Damon is fine as an action star, but his repartee with Pascal is strained, perhaps because of the simplistic dialog. The Chinese speaking actors actually fare much better and Tian Jing in particular, as Commander Lin Mae, manages to balance her role speaking English, Chinese and being an action star very well. Willem Dafoe’s Ballard, a prisoner who had also come looking for the black powder years earlier, is also of indeterminate European origin with a bare hint of an accent of some sort.
I really wanted The Great Wall to be a lot of cheesy fun but it almost became a chore to sit through. Even after the movie, some audience members were saying it was fun and they enjoyed it, but those words weren’t backed up with much enthusiasm. The press screening was also in 3D, a format of which I am a fan, but here the process doesn’t add much and the projection had the film ever so slightly out of focus, making it even more difficult to enjoy. The Great Wall isn’t a bad movie (although I wish it was been so bad it was good), it’s just an average film that doesn’t live up to the blockbuster it’s meant to be. The costumes are good, the production design is good, the wall-to-wall music is good, the monsters and battle scenes are good but the dialog and acting just bring it down. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t like it, it was just okay.
Want to see The Great Wall and judge for yourself? Click on the images below to buy your tickets now, and be sure to come back and tell us what you thought!