The Great Wall movie review: This is the worst film of Matt Damon, Zhang Yimou's careers
The Great Wall is an odd film. On one hand it’s a great experiment. With China set to become the biggest movie industry in the world in a few years time, it was inevitable that Hollywood would invest towards that direction in some way. By casting Matt Damon in a film directed by Zhang Yimou it looked to be a step in the right direction. On the other hand this is not the blockbuster you’d expect from these two powerhouses of talent – The Great Wall is in fact the worst movie of their respective careers – neither having a heart to make you care nor having some path breaking VFX to simply enjoy over popcorn.
The story is pretty simple. William, an Irish soldier (Damon) and a Spanish compatriot Tovar (Pedro Pascal) arrive in China only to discover its Great Wall is attacked by mythical creatures called Taotie. The white men stay back in China to defend the kingdom from the beasts and collaborate with the Chinese military officials to stage different modes of attack.
The film kind of works in fits and starts. There are some interesting sequences – like the showboating of the Chinese military and its tactics – which have such giant scale and tactical planning you’ll want to pick up a copy of Sun Tzu’s book after you’re back home. Like most of Yimou’s films there is some ostentatious camerawork and production design, and if you like medieval costume dramas like Game of Thrones you’ll find much to appreciate in the look and feel of the film. Some of the action-ey bits in the end are also fairly engaging. Those familiar with Eastern cinema will also find much to like about superstar Andy Lau who plays a military honcho.
It’s the stuff in between the action scenes that disappoints. At most times the film plays out like a tired soap opera that is far more serious than it needs to be. Damon’s unintentionally hilarious Irish accent only adds to the layer of cheesiness in the film that director Yimou never fully embraces. The monsters in the film are serviceable at best – in an era where you get Star Wars levels of special effects, anything less feels jarring and cheap. Strangely the dragons from 2002’s similarly themed low budget Reign of Fire look more convincing and interesting than the creatures in this movie.
The truly frustrating aspect of the film is how it feels like a propaganda piece. The white men in the film have some layers to their personalities, but none of the Chinese characters in the film are real humans – they are robotically fatalist and patriotic and would in fact do anything for their country including giving up their lives. During one moment even defenseless women jump towards the monsters with open arms to sacrifice their blessed lives for their nation – and it is executed in a manner that expects its audience to stand up and loudly applaud while shedding horse sized tears. If this is the big revolution of Chinese-Western cinema then I foresee more hyper nationalist films that depict China as the greatest place in the universe and its people slavishly subservient to it. And more worryingly, more Hollywood talent would flock to the other side for a quick buck and little effort.