First we had Trump’s Mexican wall, now we have Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall – walls are getting a really bad wrap lately, huh?
The plot of The Great Wall is so slight it can be summarised on the back of a napkin; essentially, Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal play two European mercenaries journeying east in search ‘black powder’ when they stumble across the titular wall and thousands of brightly coloured soldiers lining its parapets.
Drafted into the fighting force by Commander Mae (Tian Jing) when a horde of vicious monsters attacks, they must learn to work with and trust in the disciplined Chinese soldiers if they are to survive.
Presumably this simplicity was intentional to allow for the film to easily translate across both Western and Chinese audiences; unfortunately, it only serves to render the narrative inert, the dialogue flat and the characters one-dimensional.
The Great Wall peaks very early and never recoups after the opening salvo of action. The plot starts with nothing and goes nowhere, with none of the dull characters undergoing anything even closely resembling an arc, other than vaguely learning how to work together. The second act in particular struggles as the film essentially starts with an eye-popping battle and doesn’t have the energy or material to sustain itself as it meanders through a sluggish pool of exposition and character building afterwards.
Damon is woefully miscast and is given next to nothing to work with. He adopts a strange accent that at best can be described as Irish and at worst sounds like nothing else on this planet. Pascal plays his funny sidekick but is afforded a string of clichéd and forced one-liners you’ve heard a billion times before. The entire Chinese cast don’t fare much better; other than Jing (who plays a plucky, fierce and strong-willed leader), the rest of the Chinese army are cannon fodder for the generic green beasts to chow down on.
The only thing that works in The Great Wall’s favour is the costumes; the ornate suits of armour that the army sports are colourful, detailed and standout against the drab backdrops and flat CGI. The primary colours may make them look a bit like Power Rangers but at least they’re intricate and layered, which is more than can be said for the story or the characters that inhabit them.
What this all boils down to is an underwhelming film that fails in its attempt to fashion a coherent narrative out of history, fantasy and myth. Unlike actual history, The Great Wall is deathly boring; even though it only runs for 103 minutes, it felt more like the 1700 years it took to build the wall in the first place. You would think adding hordes of monsters would be enough to sustain interest but without interesting characters to care about and a deep, well-realised world to exist within, practically nothing about The Great Wall is worth your time.
If history is your jam, your local library or bookstore will have plenty of interesting library books about China you can read. If monsters are your thing, there are a wealth of more exciting and captivating monster movies out there worth your money. Hell, even if Matt Damon is your thing, there are reams of much better Matt Damon films you can watch where he gets the chance to actually inhabit a character rather than some thin and broadly-sketched white saviour stereotype.
The Verdict: 4/10
Ambitious but rubbish, Zhang’s The Great Wall unfortunately doesn’t like up to its name and will cause audiences to wish they were had buried their noses in a stuffy history book instead.