While The Great Wall is often visually stunning, colorful, and entertaining, the film is often dull, drab, and forgettable. It is a mixed bag with great shots of action, set design, and costuming offset by a horribly miscast performance from the film’s lead Matt Damon. The director, Yimou Zhang, is well known and respected for his epic fantasy and historic dramas: Hero and House of the Flying Daggers, to name just a few. His eye for scale helps The Great Wall a great deal. In addition to Damon, the film also stars Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Tian Jing, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, and Andy Lau. It is an impressive cast. For horror fans, The Great Wall features an army of monsters, although they are never fully explained. They could be aliens, as heavily hinted with some awkward exposition, or demons, or even dragons. They look like monster dogs. At times, they are effective, threatening and frightening as they scale the Wall and devour our heroes’ army. Even with Damon’s wooden, lifeless performance, The Great Wall has more than enough action, design, and thrills to make the film an enjoyable afternoon in the theaters; however, the film never reaches the levels of epic storytelling the cast, director, and presentation desire it to be.
As The Great Wall begins, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are making their way through China, searching for the mysterious “black powder” to trade or steal. What they find is the Great Wall and an army protecting the mainland from something far more dangerous than foreign trespassers. Before long, the siege is upon them, a horde of monstrous creatures systematically attacking the wall, looking to break through and attack a nearby city full of millions of people to devour. William, an expert bowman, joins forces with Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and Stategist Wang (Andy Lau) to defeat the creatures.
While Matt Damon has proven he can lead an action film (Jason Bourne), in The Great Wall he reveals he is horribly miscast as an adventurer in a period piece film. He never seems to fit in with the rest of the cast or within the costumes he dons. He forever appears as a man out of time. He does manage to trade in his Boston accent for something a little more appropriate for the time, but it is incredibly unclear what his chosen accent actually is. At times, it sounds Irish, at other times — who knows. Thankfully, it is not distracting for long and besides, his dialog is not all that demanding. For most of the film, Damon looks confused and constipated, unable to communicate with most of the cast and staring blankly at the action and events surrounding him. Thankfully there is enough chemistry between Tian Jing and him to sell the motivation emotionally far more convincingly than the script and exposition manage to do. On a side note, Damon and Pedro Pascal have more chemistry together and the film would benefit from using Pascal far more than it did.
Tian Jing and Andy Lau lead the Asian cast and they are fantastic. Jing makes for an impressive presence and leader among those committed to serve and protect China on the Great Wall. She is both eloquent and imposing as Commander Lin Mae, facing off against Damon’s William and the attacking creatures. Andy Lau bathes his role with a shower of character and pathos, exceeding what the script demands of the character. Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng, Zuan Huang, Ryan Zheng, and Kerry Wang round out the cast with appearances that amount to little more than extended cameos. It is not hard to imagine their is another cut of the film with a lot less Damon and a lot more of this impressive ensemble cast.
For horror fans, however, the element in the film that may matter the most is the monsters that descend upon the wall and gobble up as many humans as possible. A brief swap of exposition sets them up as landing on a nearby mountain riding along a meteor strike. Every 60 years they attack, looking to feed and multiply. This go around, they have become smarter, learning from their previous attacks. The creatures themselves may look familiar to horror fans who have seen their fair share of monster movies over the past decade. Even so, the designs hold enough interest and fascinating tweaks to capture audiences’ attention and intrigue. They come in a variety of shapes and classes, communicate with vibrations, and attack with a strategic plan to both overwhelm and deceive their opponent. At the heart of the alien-dragon-army lies the queen surrounded by her monstrous scale-plated drones. The CGI used to breathe life into these monsters ranges from Asylum awful to downright impressive, depending on the scale and importance of the scene.
The most impressive scene with the creatures, Matt Damon, and the Asian army arrives mid-film when the monsters launch their second attack during a thick blanket of fog. This decision allows for an ample amount of suspense, masking the effects behind the haze, and ramping up the tension as Damon dives over the wall to face the beasts one-on-one. There is even a convincingly important reason, regardless of its hokey reasoning in hindsight, for William to make such a risky move. It is an effective scene benefiting from pulling back the scale and creating a bit more intimacy between the attacking force and the defenders of the wall.
The Great Wall is epic in scope, imagination, and execution. It feels more like an Indiana Jones film blended with Alien and Wire Fu with a healthy dash of Asian historical fantasy. It is all over the place with its tone, humor, effects, and mixed motivations. Director Yimou Zhang holds the film together by pure force of his cinematic hand and eye. His visuals are sweeping and his strokes are broad giving the film an impressive scale. He mixes breathtaking shots of the wall, aerial visuals of the landscape, bright uses of color, and bombastic implementations of sound. Matt Damon is … well … Matt Damon. He never fully buries himself in the role and the time in which his character lives. He often appears uncomfortable in the costumes and struggles not to sound modern with the dialog. Pedro Pascal fares better and brings an ample amount of needed humor to the film. Tian Jing is impressive as Commander Lin Mae displaying both power and skill as she defends the wall. Oh yeah, William DaFoe is in the film as well, but that, sadly, doesn’t amount to much. The Great Wall is an entertaining film but it fails to make a lasting impression lacking a strong investment in William, his relationship with Commander Mae, or a full understanding of the consequences splattered about the story.
The Great Wall (3 / 5)