The Great Wall of China is one of the most famous structures ever built in the history of man. It has stood for over 2000 years and the history as to why it was built is truly fascinating. The same can not be said for The Great Wall, a new film by Legendary Pictures starring Matt Damon. Directed by Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), the film looks amazing visually and displays state of the art special effects, the action sequences are impressively crafted, but something majorly lacks throughout the course of the film.
Matt Damon plays a trader named William, who is traveling with a group of men to make a trade for black powder, the film’s MacGruffin. Early into the film, this small group is attacked by what looks to be a ferocious animal and most are killed save fro William and his friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are able to kill the beast and take a severed arm just so they can find out what exactly they killed. The next day, William and Tovar are found by a group of Chinese soldiers who chase them until they are forced to surrender at the gates of the Great Wall. Accused of being soldiers they are threatened to be killed but are spared when a strategist (Andy Lau) believes their story and urges the General (Zhang Hanyu) to let them stay.
Immediately the monsters (called Taoties) attack the Great Wall in a massive amount of numbers. We learn that these CGI stitched monsters are big, mean and actually quite smart. They are led by a Queen who communicates with the Taoties. The spectacle of action and battle scenes are awesome to watch but at times feel empty because the characters hardly have any life in them. We are rushed from one battle scene to the next with little development to distinguish one character from the next.
The Chinese soldiers or Nameless Order wear different colors of armor and in one conversation between William and Tovar, we know what color means what kind of soldier they are – I suppose in some ways it helps us to know who is who once the battle ensues. We also have a mercenary who was captured by the Nameless Order and has been at the Great Wall for over 25 years in the form of Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who was looking for black powder as well when he got captured. Willem Dafoe is a great actor who is known for memorable roles such as The Green Goblin and Sergeant Elias Grodin but in this film he has hardly anything to do. He was a mercenary, got captured, taught Commander Lin (Jing Tian) to speak English, and plans to escape by stealing black powder while a battle ensues outside the gates. It’s sad to see a great actor wasted on such a poorly developed character plus a sub-plot that is just as forgettable.
Speaking of character, Matt Damon does his best with what he is provided by the script that was written by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) along with Tony Gilroy (Bourne trilogy). The dialogue is cheesy and might have you laughing unintentionally from time to time. William is quick with a bow and proves to be a worthy ally when fighting the creatures who look kind of scary, but only that generic, CGI-sort-of-way.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
While the battle scenes are impressive and the cinematography is eye-catching along with the soundtrack from Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man), The Great Wall is overall rather a mess. The characters are largely forgettable, the dialogue is poor and funny when it’s not meant to be, and even though the film is less than two hours, feels sluggish and slight. Zhang Yimou has created beautiful films before with thoughtful characters and amazing visuals, but with The Great Wall the story, the mythology of the creatures and the characters all take a back seat to the admittedly eye-popping visuals. Maybe they should have eliminated the monsters and replaced them with the Mongols or anyone else from the Nomadic Groups of the Eurasian Steppe. A true story may have been a better way to go instead of a forgettable monster tale that we were given.