“The Great Wall” Movie Review


     Director Yimou Zhang, whose visually stylistic marital arts epics “Hero” (2002) and “House of Flying Daggers” (2004) gained the filmmaker a well earned reputation for creating stunning on screen imagery, returns to the directors chair and for the first time leads a production shot entirely in English on Chinese soil.  But for all the hype leading up to its belated release in the United States, “The Great Wall” plays as nothing more than a clunky, run of the mill monster movie, occasionally amped up with Zhang’s high end design elements and creative action choreography, but failing to set itself apart with a flawed narrative and an uninspired script.  Even more of a head scratcher is the notion that a white man, played here by Matt Damon, would prove the hero amongst the massive Chinese army charged with defending the people against the pending threat of a mysterious hoard of monsters who are expected to attack the wall and advance on the Chinese capital, putting the entire country in danger.

     But let’s say for the sake of argument and suspension of disbelief that Damon’s mercenary character, William, is the plausible and reluctant hero the story wants us to believe he his.  Screenwriters Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy don't appear interested in developing any of the most important characters, instead leaving it to the magical powers of Zhang to lure the audience with his signature breathtaking action set pieces.  Perhaps Asian audiences will be more pleased (the film has already amassed over $171 million in China alone), but the discerning tastes of American audiences typically require more than just extreme sugar coating.  And that’s essentially what Zhang has done here with colorful red and blue battle armor worn by the Chinese soldiers and an endless array of creative aerial attacks that would have soldiers flying through the air attempting to spear and kill oncoming monsters as they attempt to scale the wall.  

     Beyond that, there are connective scenes with no memorable dialogue or performances.  There are no twists or surprises.  Just a by the numbers action film in which the constant barrage of CGI wide shots seems to favor thousands of colorful dots on the screen fighting off thousands of green dots in what feels like you’re watching a massive board game.  Never once will you care who lives and who dies.  And never once will you feel exhilarated by anything you see on screen, which isn’t helped at all by a muted unmemorable score by Ramin Djawadi (“Game of Thrones”), whose soundtrack doesn’t manage to compliment Zhang’s visual mayhem at key moments where those scenes really could’ve used a significant musical thrust. 

     The story, simplistic as it is, introduces us early on to William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), two European mercenaries on the hunt for black powder, a weapon said to be in the possession of the Chinese and capable of taking out dozens of men on the battle field at a time.  After a strange encounter with an unknown creature whom they are able to fend off at their camp in the mountains outside of the wall, William and Tovar are captured by the Chinese and taken prisoner.  The assumption is made by the various Chinese characters that they are up to no good and the decision to kill them is quickly made, but William is in possession of a monstrous looking hand he cut off the creature who attacked them nights earlier and upon seeing it, the Chinese are intrigued.  As Han Solo so eloquently said in “Star Wars”, “It was a boring conversation anyway”, and the scene ends abruptly (and thankfully) as the first wave of the attacking creatures, called Taotie, arrive at the wall and force the army and its leaders into action.  The backstory is minimal on the Taotie themselves, but they prove to be a formidable adversary and one who would be right at home within the “Avatar” world of Pandora when you consider the design elements being similar to the creatures in that film.

     There isn’t much to speak of after that scene in the way of plot.  The Taotie attack the wall continually and William along with the leader of the Chinese troops, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), concoct plans and tactics designed to somehow stop the threat of these monsters penetrating the wall and advancing throughout China.  Sure, Zhang manages plenty of spectacular things to look at, but nothing you haven’t already seen done significantly better in similar battle sequences in films like “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” or even what we are currently seeing in the recent seasons of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”.  The striking advantage both of those examples have when you compare them to “The Great Wall” is, of course, the character development needed to bring substance and emotion to those in harms way.  As is, “The Great Wall” plays more like a beautifully rendered video game populated by characters who might as well be made of card board.