Review: The Great Wall

Set in centuries ago China, Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal play wanderers of ill-defined European background who have come to trade for or procure black powder (i.e. gun powder). An unknown creature attacks our travellers and their fellow men, with Damon and Pascal the only survivors. Eventually they arrive at the Great Wall, where they are treated with caution and suspicion by one and all. However, there’s no time for that as a horde of mythological creatures sets upon the Wall. It is here that Damon attempts to prove his worth to the local military Commander, a woman played by Jing Tian. This annoys Pascal, who just wants to get the powder and get out of Dodge ASAP. Willem Dafoe plays another European, currently in the service of Jing Tian, who claims to know all about the black powder. Andy Lau plays a military strategist.

When I saw the trailer to this 2017 Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers”, “Hero”, “Curse of the Golden Flower”) US-Chinese fantasy flick before “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” I remarked to my brother that I thought it’d either be great or awful. It just had that schlock-y entertainment vibe to it (or just plain schlock, with no entertainment at all), despite the names Matt Damon and Zhang Yimou involved. Having now seen the film…it’s just so-so. It’s basically a Chinese version of “Beowulf” used as mythology surrounding the Great Wall of China, and with some international stars tacked on. It’s not nearly as fun (neither good fun nor ironic fun) as I expected. As to those international actors, I think the film would’ve been quite a bit better without them, actually. I wouldn’t call it white-washing, just odd and unsuccessful. I think Matt Damon is attempting an accent other than American here, I just don’t know if he’s trying very hard with it. He gives a surprisingly tedious and unpersuasive performance, whilst also sharing anti-chemistry with the surprisingly charmless Pedro Pascal. Willem Dafoe’s performance meanwhile, is of such little distinction and enthusiasm it bears no further comment. If the film needed non-Asian actors, the director should’ve searched for ones with more swagger. Damon certainly doesn’t bring any of that, nor Pascal (who is at least capable of it, if you’ve seen his brief stint on “Game of Thrones”).

The music score by the always excellent Ramin Djawadi (the aforementioned “Game of Thrones”) is a thunderous highlight, as is the director’s penchant for bold colour (best-shown in his underrated “The Curse of the Golden Flower”, one of the best-looking colour movies of all-time). It’s a truly gorgeous-looking in terms of sheer rich colour, and there’s some nice camerawork by Stuart Dryburgh (“Once Were Warriors”, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) and Zhao Xiaoding (“House of Flying Daggers”, “Curse of the Golden Flower”) too. So there’s definitely some things to admire here, for sure.

The film also deserves credit for getting off and running rather quickly, but the visual FX (some by ILM, oddly enough) are uneven and for once here’s a film that probably ought to have been longer. None of the characters really pop, leaving the actors stranded somewhat. Andy Lau in particular, the popular actor and former Hong Kong popstar, deserved to play a much bigger part in the film than the rather uninteresting military advisor he plays here. He’s barely given anything interesting to say, which is a shame because he’s also fluent enough in English (despite this amazingly being his first ‘Hollywood’ film) that he could easily have shared more scenes with the non-Chinese members of the cast too. On the plus side, Jing Tian is genuinely good in the best performance in the entire film. She, the colourful design, and monsters were all that kept me awake here. The CGI monsters aren’t especially interesting in design, but as characters in their own right they’re actually rather interesting. More interesting than most of the humans in fact.

A surprisingly schlocky film from Zhang Yimou, however this isn’t good schlock nor bad schlock. It’s in that frustrating in-between state that is never as fun as you want it to be. There’s fun moments, and it has sensational colour and interesting monsters, but it doesn’t add up to enough. A too-short running time, poor international casting, and some uneven FX work don’t help. Interesting that the film is scripted by three non-Asians; Carlo Bernard (“The Great Raid”, “Prince of Persia”), Tony Gilroy (writer-director of the disappointing “Michael Clayton” and the even worse “Duplicity”, co-writer of the highly entertaining “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), and Doug Miro (“The Great Raid”, “Prince of Persia”), and is based on a story by three more non-Asians; Max Brooks (Son of Gov. Lepetomaine), Marshall Herskovitz (“The Last Samurai”, “Love and Other Drugs”) and noted director Edward Zwick (whose “Glory”, “The Last Samurai”, “Blood Diamond”, and “Love and Other Drugs”) are all fine films). Six writers and yet barely a character worth a damn except the monsters. Go figure.

Rating: C+


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