The Great Wall is a joint venture between the United States and China, the largest such co-production ever undertaken. It was shot in China, features a predominately Chinese cast and was helmed by a noted Chinese director, Zhang Yimou. This pedigree serves, perhaps, to make the film seem more exotic and culturally distinguished than your average bonehead American blockbuster. Alas, it isn’t. The Far East influences do nothing to elevate The Great Wall above the shallow marker of inert, big-budget spectacle. Either the Chinese film industry has the same penchant for laziness that ours does or maybe we dragged them down to our level when forces were joined.
At some indeterminate point in the Song Dynasty, a group of mercenaries are searching for the mythic weapon “black powder” (gunpowder to us modern types) while evading Khitan bandits. One night, a strange creature attacks the party, leaving only William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) as survivors. William manages to kill the beast, but not before severing one of its hands, which he holds onto, because the plot demands it. Beset by Khitans once more, the pair runs smack-dab into the Great Wall, where they surrender themselves over to the forces of the Nameless Order, a vast military sect led by General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), deciding that their chances are better on the inside rather than out.
The Nameless Order is gearing up for a battle with the Taotie, a race of mythological creatures who rear their ugly heads every 60 years. The Order has little use for William and Tovar until they catch sight of that severed hand and hear the story of how William slew the beast. When the Taotie launches a savage onslaught against the order, Commander Lin (Jing Tian) notices how well William handles himself against the monsters and enlists his service in the war. Tovar seeks to join forces with another captive, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), to make off with the Order’s supply of black powder while their armies are preoccupied, leaving William to sort out where his loyalties lie in this situation and what kind of a man he will choose to be.
Needless to say, if you had only heard the title “The Great Wall” without watching the trailers or reading up on it and were expecting a straight-laced historical epic about the Great Wall of China (something of which I was guilty until very recently), you’re in for a major shock to the system. And while the film is handsomely made and suitably epic in scale (those vistas of the Wall covered with soldiers as far as the eye can see are truly breathtaking), The Great Wall is achingly familiar. The look of the Taotie suggests a lackluster cross-pollination between the Xenomorphs, velociraptors and the Terror Dogs from Ghostbusters, and the shots of their digitized multitudes would have really popped some eyes back in 1997. For a film that has the might of the world’s two biggest moviemaking entities behind it, The Great Wall is shockingly thin. It’s every ‘army of good fending off the encroaching forces of darkness’ fantasy film you’ve ever seen. Even the fact that it’s the Great Wall of China is mostly irrelevant. It might as well be some big castle.
Damon’s casting as the great white hero who steps in to save the outmatched Chinese warriors has been the subject of whitewashing charges. That’s understandable, but his presence seems more likely due to a desire for a marketable worldwide box-office draw to anchor the film. This, too, is understandable. The true quandary here is why Damon was interested in signing onto such a rote pile of hokum. The actor recently scored great acclaim with his work in The Martian and then lucratively reprised his signature role in the profitable, if underwhelming, Jason Bourne. He didn’t need to do a cash-in part in a clunker like this. It’s not like there’s any real character here for him to play. William is as nondescript a hero as his prosaic name suggests and Damon is barely even invested enough to keep his Scottish (?) accent locked down throughout.
Tian has the most prominent role among the Chinese cast, but is similarly helpless to make her equally thin character greater than what is on the page. And Willem Dafoe’s character might as well not even exist in the narrative, and certainly doesn’t deserve to be played by someone of Dafoe’s caliber. His Ballard seems to be set up as a wild-card villain, the human antagonist of the story, but that never quite comes together. He’s essentially there to provide another recognizable American face, it seems. Faring the best is Pascal, who stands as the only source of humor the film can claim and makes the most of his put-upon one-liners.
A story that really sinks its teeth into the majesty and mystery of the Great Wall of China could potentially fascinate, yet The Great Wall is content to exist as little more than Lord of the Rings cut-scenes. The film doesn’t see its namesake as anything other than mere set dressing, a platform from which arrows can be shot downward at the fiends scaling its heights. The structure is one of the Wonders of the World for a reason. With the movie, one only wonders why it was even made.
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