The Great Wall (2017) Universal/Action-Adventure-Fantasy RT: 104 minutes Rated PG-13 (sequences of fantasy action violence) Director: Zhang Yimou Screenplay: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy Music: Ramin Djawadi Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh and Zhao Xiaoding Release date: February 17, 2017 (US) Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Lu Han Andy Lau, Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng, Wang Junkai.
Let me begin by assuring you that I haven’t gone completely insane (at least not yet). As of right now, I am of sound mind and body (or as close to it as I’ll ever be). I haven’t lost touch with reality. I haven’t been doing heavy drugs. Why do I tell you all this? I’m afraid you’ll think I’ve lost my damn mind when I admit to liking The Great Wall, a supremely silly fantasy-action-adventure in which a whole army tries to defend the Great Wall of China from a horde of monsters.
Given the sorry state of today’s megabudget action spectacles, you’ll have to pardon me for going in with low expectations. It took me days to fully recover from the sensory pounding I took from Assassin’s Creed a couple months back. I still experience night terrors about I, Frankenstein and that was three years ago. I’ve been burnt by pictures like this many times over but once in a while, one comes along that’s actually pretty good- e.g. Gods of Egypt, Dracula Untold. I’ve given much thought to why The Great Wall works as well as it does and have come up with two reasons. First, it’s directed by an actual filmmaker as opposed to an untalented hack. Chinese director Zhang Yimou has an impressive resume that includes dramas (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern) and period martial arts pieces (Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower). Second, The Great Wall never takes itself seriously so why should we? Yimou gets that he’s making a weekend matinee flick and has fun with it.
Set during the Song Dynasty, The Great Wall stars Matt Damon (the Jason Bourne movies) as William, a European mercenary searching for black powder. Bandits have killed most of his party and an unseen creature takes care of the rest until it’s down to William and Tovar (Pascal, Narcos), a Spaniard. They get captured by a secret military sect, The Nameless Order, charged with defending the Wall against the monsters (called “Tei Tao”) who rise every 60 years to feed. Initially prisoners, they’re freed after William proves himself in battle. His bow-and-arrow skills impress the leaders, especially Lin (Tian, Police Story 2013) who commands a troop of female warriors who leap from the Wall on bungees to stab the monsters.
Initially, William’s motives for sticking around are selfish. He and Tovar, along with another European captive Ballard (Dafoe, Wild at Heart), plan to steal as much black powder as they can carry and sneak away while their captors are occupied with fighting off the Tei Tao. Predictably, he undergoes a change of heart as he comes to respect how the soldiers fight as a collective entity. He’s lived his entire life as a loner without a cause and finds a sense of purpose aiding the Order in the fight.
I can’t believe I’m praising The Great Wall but I truly enjoyed it. It has a great visual sense. Ordinarily, I’m not an advocate of CGI but just like everything else in life, there are exceptions. It was definitely the way to go for The Great Wall. The effects in this movie are quite good. The sight of the creatures, which look like a cross between vicious dog and piranha, attacking is an awesome one. I don’t see how this could be achieved by any means other than CGI. I’m not even sure Ray Harryhausen could have pulled it off. The costumes and set design are also impressive. The Nameless Order marches around in colorful suits armor; the well-executed battle scenes are a swirl of indigo, crimson and cerulean with soldiers banging huge drums to signal different units to do their thing. The action scenes are sufficiently chaotic and not overedited to the point of migraine-inducing confusion.
The storyline, which borrows elements from Starship Troopers and maybe a dozen other movies, is pretty cool in a goofball sort of way. The mythology, of course, is complete bunk. The Great Wall may be dumb but it’s never stupid. Unlike some of the titles I’ve mentioned, it doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence. It’s not without its flaws. Damon isn’t so great in the lead. Besides the unconvincing Irish accent, he’s not that commanding a presence. Plus, he has zero bro-chemistry with Pascal; it feels very forced. Dafoe is underused as a character we know will turn out to be a villain. The Asian actors, Tian in particular, fare much better.
It bears mentioning that The Great Wall is a Chinese-American co-production. It’s also the most expensive movie ($150 million) ever made in China. Plus, it’s Yimou’s first English-language movie. It’s definitely a cut or two above the usual megabudget crap that shows up at multiplexes throughout the year. The Great Wall is monumentally dumb but lots of fun. Check it out at a Saturday matinee, you won’t be too disappointed.