Director: Yimou Zhang/2017

The good news is that the controversial film The Great Wall is not as bad as you might have heard.  The bad news is that it isn’t particularly great either.  Saddled with the notion that this film was another example of “white-washing”, having a white actor cast to save the day (or cast in the place of a character from another culture), in a film that is based on another culture, The Great Wall has a giant….wall to climb in convincing people to turn out for this film.

For those who see the giant poster with Matt Damon featured so prominently, or who see the trailer with Matt Damon running around the Great Wall of China shooting arrows insinuating that he was the strength of China’s storied Song Dynasty, then I can tell you that your concerns should be somewhat alleviated, but not totally. Famed Chinese director, Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) directs a nearly all-Chinese cast, telling a unique Chinese legend, shot on location in China, featuring the most famous Chinese landmark.  And for those who love Zhang’s visual style, it is ever present throughout this film.  Being dubbed the most expensive Chinese film ever produced, Zhang is able to handle the large scale of the project and brings his unique visual flare to a legitimate blockbuster-styled film.  This film, while featuring a giant star, in the case of Matt Damon, is obviously built for a Chinese audience, with enough flashes to give it legs in the box office beyond China.  But clearly the presence of Damon, Pascal, and Dafoe are here out of a Hollywood business decision to appeal to audiences outside of China, as if they were worried a Chinese tale wouldn’t have had international appeal.  They were wrong.  The Chinese cast and setting are perfectly entertaining without the need for broad appeal.

For those looking for a great action film, they will be largely underwhelmed.  In the end, more works than doesn’t, but despite being called The Great Wall, it really doesn’t stand that tall.

Matt Damon plays William, a European mercenary who along with his colleague, Tovar (Pedro Pascal-Narcos), and other Europeans, are searching for a new weapon that they’ve heard about which they call “black powder”. Since the Chinese are known to have invented gun powder, this is your reason for how these Caucasians find themselves in the far eastern land of China during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).  While running from a group trying to kill them for being in the land, they encounter a monster who wipes out all but William and Tovar, with William dealing a fatal blow to the unseen beast.  Running away from this and their human pursuers, they come upon the Great Wall of China with an entire army ready to destroy them.

They are captured and led into the barracks inside the wall.  There they meet General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing).  They hear the story of the monster attack from these prisoners, but greatly doubt their story, until they see the arm of one of the beasts that William has kept from his encounter the night before.  They agree to keep these prisoners alive until they can have more time to think through the facts.

While awaiting their sentence, William and Tovar notice another Anglo-face, that of Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another mercenary who once searched for black powder, and who has been a prisoner for 25 years.  The film quickly ramps up into high action as the monsters, called Tao Tei, begin their attack.  These monsters, according to the legend, attack every 60 years.  This happens to be that 60th year, and William and Tovar will reluctantly find themselves fighting alongside their Chinese captors in order to survive.

The story was conceived by Max Brooks (World War Z), Marshall Herskovitz (The Last Samurai), and Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai).  With two of the these individuals having been behind The Last Samurai, it would be fitting to say that there is a lot of similarities of Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal’s narrative, and that of Tom Cruise’s character in The Last Samurai.  Both are prisoners in a foreign culture who are given the freedom to roam around their prison (one a village, and here the Great Wall), learning about the strength of the culture that imprisons them.  Both will earn a mutual respect from their counterparts.  While the story was developed by these individuals, the screenplay comes from Carlos Bernard (Narcos, Prince of Persia), Doug Miro (Narcos), and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Series, Michael Clayton).  Unfortunately, it is the script that is the weakest point of this film, offering very clumsy dialogue and simplistic character arcs.  One has to wonder what would have happened if the story was given to Chinese writers.

Despite the weak dialogue and characters, the main point of Zhang’s film is that of spectacle.  This film is built for 3-D with arrows, Tao Tei, arrows and more flying out of the screen into the audience.  Zhang uses beautiful color schemes to differentiate each branch of the military, that also showcases different fighting styles and skills for each branch.  He also chooses to get quite creative with the Great Wall itself, with movable bricks that reveal deadly hidden weapons beyond the mortar.  The Chinese cast is also very good, particularly Tian Jing who finds herself in great demand, set to appear in the upcoming Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising.

The white-washing accusations, like the film itself, proves to be a largely muted affair.  For those wanting to see a passable action film that was reminiscent of an ancient Chinese version of Pacific Rim, this film will entertain. For those looking for a great action film, they will be largely underwhelmed.  In the end, more works than doesn’t, but despite being called The Great Wall, it really doesn’t stand that tall.