I remember reading about The Great Wall over a year ago when I put together my list of most anticipated films for 2016. The concept of dropping Matt Damon and Andy Lau, among others, into a Zhang Yimou (Hero) film about soldiers fighting off monsters at the Great Wall of China sounded pretty amazing. The concept is inherently goofy, but the film would no doubt look amazing. It turns out I was right. While not all that deep from a story level, The Great Wall has plenty of visual delights and enough consciously silly choices to make this Chinese production feel like a near parody of similar Hollywood fair, despite mostly playing it straight. The result is a colorful monster movie with little depth.
As mentioned, the film features Damon, along with Pedro Pascal, as European mercenaries who find themselves dropped in the middle of a war between China and deadly monsters that attack every 60 years. This film suggests the Great Wall was actually built as a defense measure against these creatures. There is also the huge, very organized, army that helps to defend the Chinese Empire against these monster attacks. Having arrived with little motivation other than finding black powder (gunpowder), Damon’s William soon proves his worth as a monster killer and helps to stop these attacks.
What I can appreciate about a film like this is similar to the joy I took from The Host from South Korean director Bong Joon Ho. Both films don’t try to hide the nature of the threat. This isn’t Jaws and there’s no need to hold off on visualizing the monsters, thanks to the effort put in by ILM and Weta Workshop. We see a giant battle early on, which is basically the film’s peak. It’s a battle that shows both the nature of the monsters and the gleefully over-the-top spectacle that is the Chinese army performing their duties in color-coded fashion. Even Damon gets pushed into near-anime like heroics, as he jumps, dodges and throws down with a couple of monsters, after being tied up for nearly the whole battle.
Still, there’s been some hesitation for some when it came to excitement for this film. Part of it was the underwhelming marketing, but it was mostly the placement of Damon in the lead. Without context, you do wonder if he becomes the one (white) man who could save all of China. Now having seen the film, it is considerably much less about that and more of a show for just how great China and their army are.
In the same way we see generic Hollywood blockbusters (think the very similar Battleship) show off American military force, The Great Wall gets far more thematic mileage out of exploring Damon’s discovery of why Chinese elite soldiers live a much more fulfilling life than that of a mercenary. As a result, you have a star with international appeal playing as a centerpiece for propaganda in a way not that different than Jet Li in Hero. The only real difference is the level of effort put into the characterization and story.
The Great Wall will not be remembered as one of Yimou or Damon’s better efforts. Yimou seemingly came onboard due to the allure of making an action blockbuster that is very much pro-China, while Damon seems to be here because, “Gee whiz, I get to fight monsters.” With three credited screenwriters (and three more with a story credit), it seems as if the most work went into stripping the film down into a straight-forward action film, with little time for subplots or deeper character studies. It shows, as Damon has very little to do, other than state his purpose and update the others on where his head’s at (all done with a shaky, vaguely Irish accent throughout). Still, it does mean he’s part of an ensemble, as opposed to a lone warrior better than everyone else.
While Pascal is more or less comic relief, with a mix of skills and buffoonery, Jing Tian’s Commander Lin Mae is really the film’s second lead. As an actress not forced into a contrived romantic scenario with Damon’s character, the film once again finds a way to highlight the sort of team effort going into this battle against monsters. Willem Dafoe also stars as another lost European waiting for the right moment to escape with his greed. Finally, Andy Lau (Damon’s Departed equivalent from Infernal Affairs) plays the chief war strategist and is featured among many other Chinese stars populating the cast.
Despite the rather large ensemble though, few of these actors really stick out, as the film is more about monster action, with flimsy dramatic padding. However, there is a strong level of satisfaction when it comes to all of this monster action, as Yimou is a skilled director. He may not be operating on the level that matches his visual prowess with proper emotional stakes, but he’s certainly competent enough to show audiences ridiculous action sequences that are clear enough to comprehend. Again, Yimou is a director with enough experience and self-awareness to really make me wonder just how in the know he is on this film being a tongue-in-cheek take on Hollywood blockbuster fare. Of course, the respect he has for his own nation also means matching ideas together that may not ultimately mix as well as he may have wanted.
It matters little, as I had plenty of satisfaction in seeing the colorful armies and inventive monster designs on the big screen and in 3D. While that extra dimension is not something I need to champion, I do enjoy an action film that is happy enough to fling things at the screen quite frequently. Of course, it also matters that I am enjoying the inventiveness and I did. The Great Wall doesn’t rely on too much violent monster carnage (which it could have used more of), but it is a fun and quite earnest display of what can be seen in an original blockbuster less concerned with building a franchise and more focused on its own personality, flaws and all.