The Great Wall, 2016.
Directed by Yimou Zhang.
Starring Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Hanyu Zhang, Eddie Peng, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Junkai Wang, Zheng Kai, Cheney Chen, Xuan Huang, and Andy Lau.
European mercenaries searching for black powder become embroiled in the defense of the Great Wall of China against a horde of monstrous creatures.
Don’t buy a ticket with great expectations coming into The Great Wall. Yimou Zhang is certainly a gifted director (most known for Hero and House of Flying Daggers) now making his English-speaking film debut, but he’s unfortunately working with a highly generic and cliché story. Will dishonorable mercenary William (Matt Damon in one of his weakest and little defined roles ever) change his selfish ways and begin fighting for honor over greed? Will Willem Dafoe’s completely superfluous and useless character betray everyone at some point? Will the beastly green dragons cause catastrophic damage to the wall? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the answer to most of these questions; The Great Wall is essentially a grab bag of tried-and-true narrative tropes.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but execution is what makes or breaks films that willingly settle down into a conventional tale told on autopilot, going through the motions. Important leaders in a fantasy version of China meet their demise with not a single emotion felt. Strangely, the aftermath of one particular death which depicts a ritualistic sendoff is more engaging than watching this particular character croak, which actually falls in line with the redeeming good aspects of The Great Wall. It may be dumb and absolutely predictable, but the visionary chops of its director are on full display, with an unexpectedly high focus on lengthy action sequences.
The film begins with an impressive battle against the Tao Tei (a seemingly never-ending horde of feral fantasy monsters hive mind controlled by a Queen) from atop The Great Wall, showcasing a great deal of thoughtful craft put into the crucial line of defense. There are multiple different sections of soldiers, each tasked with a key position and unique method of keeping the dragons at bay. Some of them are the more typical tower defense strategies (launching flaming cannon balls over the wall and into a grouped up pack of Tao Tei), and others elicit a hugely entertaining acrobatic style, such as the Crane Corps that are harnessed as they fight up and down the towering structure as they fend off creatures scaling the wall. It also helps that all of the various teams are color-coded in battle garments, making for a pleasantly bright palette contrasting heavy black smoke and the grays of war.
Each extended battle sequence tends to one-up the previous, or is determined to shake things up, whether it be from dangerously going into no man’s land beyond the wall, or a mid-air fight on top of makeshift wooden rafts suspended via hot air balloons. There is a welcome amount of creativity to the carnage, ensuring that the movie rarely gets boring. Again, it’s actually surprising just how much of the movie is straight-up action, even though the story does take a backseat and is mostly detailed with brief exposition scenes that feel straight out of a video game (particularly, the history of the creatures).
Visually, The Great Wall is a treat to look at, however, due to the World War Z approach (which makes sense considering that Max Brooks played a part in creating the story here) of rendering hundreds and hundreds of the beasts at once, a lot of detail is lost among the beings. The muted colors occasionally hide the somewhat dated CGI, but more often than not, whenever a pack of them crowd the screen it’s unsatisfactory. On the contrary, overhead shots of the land beyond the wall are breathtaking and really do properly demonstrate a sense of depth regarding just how monstrous the army of Tao Tei has become.
It’s also worth noting that the press screening was presented in 3-D, which worked in favor to the experience as there are numerous moments and kills that successfully use the technology. Thankfully, it’s not just the kind of 3-D that crashes the camera, but also used to expand on the depth of both the enemies and battle-torn locations. Expect a lot of arrows headed straight to your face with buckets of green blood subsequently spraying everywhere.
Ultimately, The Great Wall is a fun slice of blockbuster cinema when everyone is on top of the structure doing everything possible to prevent the creatures from breaking through the stronghold. On the other hand, whenever it is focused on telling its cliché story or giving out scenes containing secondary characters and subplots regarding stealing a fabled powerful powder, the mind wanders. At least it’s always aesthetically pleasing to look at, serving a nice reminder as to what visionary director Yimou Zhang is capable of creating. Next time, let’s give him a more original script to work from.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★