“I was born into battle. I fought for greed and gods. This is the first war I’ve seen worth fighting.”
On its surface, The Great Wall should be the sort of game-changing movie that spawns imitators the world over. Yimou Zhang has previously directed entertaining actioners like House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower. Matt Damon is a veritable movie star whose hits have amassed blockbuster status all over the world. The production is also the largest film to be filmed completely in China (rumored to be $150 million). Together, these parts should make for something spectacular. Unfortunately, like most studio concepts, this meeting of worlds does not coalesce into a satisfying project.
The Great Wall wants to tell a story that crosses all cultural divides, yet by giving the signature role in the film to Matt Damon, the film trivializes the contributions of the non-American cast. Focusing on the team as more of an ensemble would have done wonders in creating a more balanced picture. Instead, all audiences have is an A-lister who doesn’t have much of a cast to bounce off of.
Damon and Pedro Pascal star as European mercenaries, William Garin and Pero Tovar, that have traveled to China in search of black powder owned by the Chinese government. In the dead of night, William strikes out at a creature that could only be described as a monster. Only the severed claw of his foe is left behind as proof of its existence. Soon captured by a military garrison, the claw is the only reason General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) allows the men to live for trespassing. Once inside the titular wall, Shao explains to William and Pero that his people have been fighting the taotie (the lizard monsters) for centuries. Shao’s battalion is the last line of defense, and their expertise protected the mainland from invasion for years.
Despite years of battling the taotie, the battalion’s first advancement comes as a result of William capturing one of the monsters to learn more about them. William has also been gifted the ability to resist the taotie’s hive-mind powers, but not by any sort of skill, merely dumb luck. If audiences are still hesitant to believe in William’s superiority, Pero reassures all watching that it is the interloper who is going to save them all. Pascal is a recognizable face meant to help boost ticket sales, yet he exists only to remind the audience of William’s previous exploits (all offscreen). Similarly, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and Ballard (Willem Dafoe) only exist to make William learn and feel differently.
One wouldn’t fault Legendary Pictures for assuming that Matt Damon would help sell The Great Wall in the U.S. and overseas, but he certainly didn’t have to be made the savior. Damon, as William, is his usual congenial self and assists in moving the pace along quickly. Not helping matters is the overly serious tone the film tries — and fails — to stick to. Keeping with the massive budget, The Great Wall makes time for several speeches regarding the importance of trust, brotherhood, and honor, all in hopes of pleasing focus groups.
What The Great Wall does succeed at is in creating a fusion of two distinct cinematic action styles. Early fight scenes where soldiers harness themselves to the wall and launch themselves into battle are incredible fun. Full disclosure: I did not attend the 3D screening of the film, but if I did the rating might have been upgraded another point. The visuals are crisp, bright, and boldly colored; if the same effort to make everything look great onscreen was also put into the script, The Great Wall would be the Avatar-style hit that producers were hoping for.