The Great Wall: Movie Review

The Great Wall was billed as something of a prestige film. It’s the first English-language film by an important international director, Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) with a major American actor, Matt Damon, and the biggest budget yet for a film shot entirely in China. It’s about the Great Wall of China, for heaven’s sake. But it had also gotten fairly bad reviews–35% on Rottentomatoes.com. I expected something fairly sober, like Hero, but perhaps a little self-important, hence the reviews.

What I did not expect was an exciting monster movie. What I didn’t expect was something fun, but insubstantial. The story’s kind of dumb, and a lot of the movie doesn’t work all that well. But it looks amazing, and it includes action sequences that are mind-blowingly intricate and superbly staged. My wife and I enjoyed ourselves.

Damon plays a soldier-for-hire named William, who, along with his best friend and fellow mercenary, Tover (Pedro Pascal), is in China trying to find the ultimate superweapon, an exploding black powder, thinking they can make a fortune selling it in the West. Gunpowder, in other words, which would set the movie, I don’t know, sometime in the 12th or 13th centuries. William and Tovar are attacked by a monster, and manage to cut off a foot while fighting it off. They’re subsequently captured by soldiers from the Nameless Order, posted at a section of the Great Wall, who are fascinated by this creature’s foot. The monster, it turns out, is a creature called a Taotie. And it turns out, they’re the reason for the Wall.

The Taotie (a legendary creature in Chinese mythology), are plenty scary. They’re sort of lizard-y, like a cross between an iguana and a velociraptor, with big teeth and claws, and eyes in their shoulders. They’re fast, highly intelligent, and, we’re told, pose a danger to all of humanity. They eat what they kill, and they regurgitate it into the mouth of their queen, who directs their actions, and replaces their losses. Eventually, they’ll eat enough Chinese people to spread further West. All of mankind is at risk, we’re told. And the Nameless Order, and the Wall, are all that’s stopping them.

And the Nameless soldiers are fantastic. They wear color-coded uniforms, depending on their tasks. Some are archers, some are foot soldiers. Some are spearwomen, who bungie-jump off high platforms with spears, and who seem particularly lethal (and vulnerable).  All the battle sequences, and there are many, are spectacular.

I don’t actually think the Great Wall could do everything this movie thinks it could do. I don’t think, for example, that there were/are slots in the walls where huge scythe-y blades would be inserted and swung about lethally. Or flute-arrows, good in a mist, because they warn you if a wounded Taotie is coming at you. Or ginormous flaming catapulted rocks. I question the historical accuracy of at least some of that. But it all sure looked cool.

Yimou Zhang is the kind of old-fashioned director who, if a scene calls for a thousand soldiers, will cast and drill and costume a thousand extras rather than rely on CGI. I found that those battle sequences were both exciting and heart-breaking. The stakes were high; you could see how risky combat was, and how much was at stake for these superb soldiers. They weren’t faceless casualties. They were people, brave and daring.

The Nameless are led by a woman, a Commander Lin (Tian Jing). Jing is wonderful in the role; I had never seen her before, but she was great, commanding and vulnerable. In fact, the Chinese actors all fared better than the Western actors, especially Andy Lau as Strategist Wang (their top military mind), and Lu Han, as Peng Yong, the company’s lowly dishwasher, who reveals an unanticipated valor by the end of the film.

As for the Western actors, Pedro Pascal is fine as the rather one-dimensional Tovar, and Willem Dafoe is forgettable as a character, Ballard, whose arc makes no sense whatsoever. (He’s there to steal gunpowder too, but after twenty five years has done nothing about it–mostly, he’s there to explain how Lin speaks English).

I love Matt Damon. I think he’s a fine actor, who has managed his career beautifully. He knows what sorts of roles he can play, and stays within his comfort zone. In this, he tries a sort of vaguely Celtic accent (Scots? Irish?), which comes and goes. He’s fine. But most of his better scenes are with Tian Jing, and she kind of blows him away.

The problem is, this is basically a monster film, and the moments that try to be something else don’t work very well. The monsters attack, there’s an astonishing action sequence, they’re driven off. Repeat, as needed. In the meantime, we see Tovar and Ballard plot to steal gunpowder, which we never are able to care about. And William’s supposed to be helping them, but he’s distracted, first by the monsters, but mostly with Lin.

The movie’s one stab at some larger relevance comes in William’s interactions with this Chinese female commander. She’s Chinese. She values cooperation, the individual sacrificing for the common good. He’s a Westerner; he values rugged individualism. That being the case, he really ought to be on his way with his two doofus friends and their black powder. But he’s drawn to these people, drawn to their heroism, drawn to the taut professionalism of their soldiers, and, of course, also drawn to this one particular fascinating strong young woman. It’s not a romantic movie; they never kiss, for example. But there’s clearly an attraction, and, of course, why wouldn’t there be? He’s a professional soldier. So is she. They’re both astonishing good at combat. And the Taotie are really, genuinely a threat.

In fact, the Taotie are such a threat, the gunpowder-stealing subplot is just annoying. And the philosophical discussions about which society is better, Chinese or Western, are about as compelling as abstract philosophical discussions usually are in action movies. When Lin and William talk, the movie stops dead in its tracks. But when they fight side by side? It’s magical.

It’s such a beautiful film, and the action sequences are so compelling, it kept our attention. Yimou Zhang makes gorgeous films. He’s also made profound ones in the past, and this is not one of those. I’m still glad I saw it. Matt Damon moves well, and his action sequences were fine. I don’t much care which foreign accent he mangles. And Tian Jing is marvelous. In fact, I intend to see the new King Kong movie (a singularly unnecessary film, I would have said, and not something I would ordinarily bother with), just because she’s in it.

It’s a shame, really. This film was promoted as an art film. A big budget feature by a major international director. In fact, it’s just a really scary monster movie, and it looks great. I wish it could have found its audience here, in the States. It should do fine in China.

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