The Great Wall movie review: Matt Damon’s fantasy epic is a Chinese Game of Thrones
The Great Wall
Director - Zhang Yimou
Cast - Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Jing Tian
Cast - 3.5/5
While The Great Wall is an infinitely better film, the fact that it reminds you - even briefly - of the rotting pile of used kimonos that was Keanu Reeves’ 47 Ronin, is almost enough to send you into a tizzy. Three blissful years had gone by, and not once had the image of a sedated-looking Keanu slashing one-eyed giants and lethal cloth serpents crossed my mind. Until now.
The similarities, heavy as they may be – they’re both historical fantasies set in a far-eastern land, they’re both distributed by the same studio, and both films star a famous Hollywood actor as a (and this is problematic) white saviour character – are rather harmless, and thankfully very superficial.
There is, however, one key difference. It is the only thing that elevates The Great Wall from an ambitious, yet clichéd action film into what turned out to be a surprisingly intricate, visually breathtaking monster movie: Director Zhang Yimou.
Also, yes; it’s a monster movie. But we’ll get to that later.
Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal (you remember him, and the unfortunate fate of his eyes, from Game of Thrones) play a couple of mercenaries of hazy nationality who find themselves in medieval China. Their quest for a mysterious item known as ‘black powder’ lands them at the foot of The Great Wall, where they are immediately arrested for trespassing.
At the centre of this movie, Zhang’s first in the English language, is a knockout of a concept. The whole thing revolves around the fantastic idea that every 60 years, a horde of mythical beasts known as the Tao Tei attack China. To keep them out, and to protect the mainland from their onslaught, that, the movie says, was the real reason behind the Wall’s erection. And in addition to the Wall – probably because a lot of the monsters slip through anyway – the Chinese have bred warriors, whom they’ve been training all their lives, just for this.
Aside from the parallels to how modern China ‘breeds’ sports stars, you’d be lying to yourself if you said you weren’t interested in watching this movie – especially since it opens with a stunning 20-minute action set-piece, which is followed by two more, equally breathtaking sequences, in the film’s second and third acts.
These battle sequences are a gloriously choreographed burst of technicolour thrills, and they’ll erase every lingering memory of Keanu’s bewildered face that you might have had, and replace it instead, with images from Lord of the Rings’ classic Battle of Helm’s Deep.
There are however in this film, a few muddy missteps and the occasional attempt at forced drama, which can mostly be blamed on the cultural tightrope that Zhang is walking. While the film is entirely set in China, and is very respectful of its rich imagery and cinematic history, there is the issue of it having to cater to a Western audience as well. It’s an issue that the film’s six(!) screenwriters very dubiously address with a rather unfortunate movie trope: The White Saviour.
It isn’t as iffy as Django Unchaned’s Dr King Schultz, or Keanu in (sigh) 47 Ronin, but it certainly is right there for everyone to see. And it doesn’t help that Matt Damon is confusingly mellow, and not his usual charismatic self this time.
To bridge this gap however, Zhang blends his distinct wuxia style (please go watch his back-to-back classics Hero, and House of Flying Daggers), with elements from Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings – to inconsistent success.
Perhaps it was their decision to be obnoxiously bullish with their monsters, which robs them, and the film, of all suspense; or perhaps it is their overreliance on action over character, but The Great Wall could have been something special. You can really sense it. It’s very irritating that it made the wrong choices when it mattered the most.
But right now, as it stands, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill fantasy epic with 3 spectacular action scenes that more than make up for one very muted Matt Damon.