UK Release Date: 17th February 2017
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Zhang Yimou
Writer: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy
Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe, Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng
Synopsis: Two mercenaries in search of black powder travel to China and find themselves embroiled in a battle between the local army and ancient monsters seeking to smash through the eponymous structure.
The pre-publicity surrounding The Great Wall was essentially a large succession of people raising their eyebrows. Appropriately enough, there were so many raised eyebrows that you could almost certainly see them in space. This was the most expensive movie ever shot entirely in China, it was surrounded by a whitewashing row due to Matt Damon‘s leading role and the plot seemed like a generic retread of a million different monster attack narratives. That’s enough to make any penny-pinching studio executive nervous and send any knife-sharpening critic into paroxysms of excitement. Unfortunately for all involved, The Great Wall isn’t good enough to rake in box office dollars and it isn’t even nearly bad enough for this review to become a sniping hatchet job.
William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are part of a group of mercenaries from Europe, in China to hunt for lucrative black powder, when they are attacked by a terrifying beast. Only the duo survives the attack and they are soon chased to the eponymous wall, where they are taken prisoner by Chinese military forces, led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and his strategist Wang (Andy Lau). William impresses ruthless Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) with his bravery when the beasties attack and he soon agrees to work with them to fight back the ancient creatures, who make attempts to invade China over the wall every 60 years.
This is a very unusual movie from House of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou. In attempting to appease an American audience as well as its native Chinese market, it falls between two stalls and fails to truly embrace either of its core audiences. It’s rendered in an awkward combination of English and Chinese and juxtaposes some impressively mounted, colourful action sequences that feel unique to Asian cinema with a distinctly American sense of humour and a focus on its white stars. The whole thing feels at once safe and offbeat, conventional and oddball, which leaves it as wasted potential.
The action scenes are, initially at least, compelling. Yimou is a strong director of action and the fantasy fights here are considerably better than similar recent films like the dismal Keanu Reeeves-starring 47 Ronin. After the first impressive action sequence, though, these soon become a little samey and, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Yimou fails to find a new groove for his action and, by the end, it feels like the same sort of CGI fest we see every week during summer blockbuster season.
Matt Damon, though a competent action lead, feels entirely out of place here. Not only is he a distinctly unusual leading man for a cat packed with Asian actors doing great work, but he also seems to have no idea where his character is supposed to have been born. Much like Russell Crowe in his disastrous Robin Hood movie, Damon’s accent is essentially a tour of Western Europe, with smatterings of Irish, Spanish and just about everywhere else littered in among his own American drawl. The version of him in Team America: World Police sounded more like a real human being. Pedro Pascal, meanwhile, just gets weird one-liners and Willem Dafoe skulks around in the shadows hoping that someone will throw a pay cheque in his general direction.
It’s not that The Great Wall is necessarily a bad movie and there are elements of intrigue in its plot, as well as excellent performances from the likes of Jing Tian. Certainly, when compared to a film that aims itself at the Chinese market like Warcraft, this is art of the highest possible quality. It’s a little overlong and doesn’t bother to give its characters an ounce of depth, but if you’re in the market for a mildly visually entertaining action movie with great fantasy beasts and an Asian twist, The Great Wall could be perfect for you.
Pop or Poop?
A talented cast struggle to elevate disappointing material in this incredibly expensive fantasy action movie. The Great Wall has no idea who it wants to appeal to and, as a result, it appeals to precisely no one. Matt Damon is all at sea, in both character and accent, and a few elegant action scenes are not enough to rescue the film from becoming a somewhat tedious slog.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
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