In his first English-language film, director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of the Flying Daggers) treats us to a very schlocky, but nonetheless fun, medieval monster movie with The Great Wall. You very much know what you’re getting with this one, and while it’s certainly not appearing on any must-see lists anytime soon, the mid-budget action and colorful, video-gamey designs ensure the film’s target demographic can enjoy the 100-odd minutes of swords, spears, giant green monsters, and a couple of white dudes for box-office return.
Traversing China while trying to track down a sample of the Chinese black powder, a group of European mercenaries is decimated by a strange green monster. Having barely escaped with their lives, the only two survivors, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), soon find themselves captured by an unknown military group garrisoned on China’s Great Wall called the Nameless Order, who defend the world by trying to contain an ancient alien menace.
Shakespeare it ain’t, but the simple premise and Yimou’s stylistic flair make for a great game of heroes vs monsters. Taking obvious inspiration from big Hollywood defense set-pieces like those in the Lord of the Rings movies or Troy, The Great Wall has a lot of fun showing off the machinations the humans have created to stop their enemy from breaching the wall. The Nameless Order is designed with a compressible simplicity that feels like it was lifted straight from a video game; archers are in red armor, berserkers are in black, and the blue is reserved for the all-female corps who gracefully bungee jump off the wall to spear the monsters below before doing some unnecessarily badass spins back onto the platform. It’s all a bit silly, especially with some of the medieval machines used later in the film, but the creative combat ensures the film’s generous action is a treat to watch in spite of its obvious budgetary limitations.
Less of a treat are the monsters themselves. Taking a little bit of sci-fi and mixing it in with a more traditional, Asian demonic design, the approach to the creatures of this feature is commendable but the execution just isn’t quite right. These are the things of 90s pulp nightmares; oversized features, unnecessarily complex physiology, and far too cartoonish to strike fear into the audience. The giant, finned monsters that guard the alien Queen are particularly distracting, which is more the problem as their role in the invasion inevitably puts them front and center for the climax. The biggest issue though is the tragically unconvincing CGI that never once allows you to feel like our heroes and their foes are occupying the same world. When the action is frantic enough you can kind of forgive how weightless and impractical they are, but it’s a huge problem that you’re relived when you can’t catch a clear glimpse of a the movie’s monsters for fear of being totally taken out of the narrative.
The humans fare a little better than their scaly green opposition, with most characters being likeable enough, even if they’re never terribly interesting. Across the board there are plenty of comedic beats and fun interactions, but while these do help relieve tension and make The Great Wall a much more digestible movie, the zippy comebacks and the humour in general all feel like they are deliberately injected by the writer and not emerging from the characters organically. Tian Jing’s Commander Lin Me is easy to rally behind as a young warrior becoming a leader, Pascal is entertaining as our lead’s slightly less honorable bestie, and it’s pretty well impossible to not enjoy seeing Damon bust heads. But as fun as they may sometimes be, these are characters you’ve see a million times before and you’ll see a million times again.
Damon’s inclusion is also a bit of a mixed blessing. At least for western audiences, he’s the biggest name here, and I don’t think he could be uncharismatic if his life depended on it, but William is a protagonist that simply does not give Damon the range he deserves. More the problem is that William’s arc is that of an uncaring mercenary to an honorable warrior, a redemptive arc that could have been much stronger under an actor who isn’t so immediately likeable. Damon’s celebrity also communicates a certain prestige the film quite proudly doesn’t have, a fact that may have some audiences disappointed if they don’t have an appetite for the b-grade fun The Great Wall trades in.
Also, it needs to be said that the early criticisms of this movie being whitewashed prove to be quite ill-informed. Yes, there is an American lead in a movie set in China, but this isn’t a story about a white guy turning up to save all the helpless Chinese. It’s a story about a western warrior being inspired by what he sees, and finally finding a cause worth fighting for. But then It’s also a story about psychic, green space-demons. So, you know… maybe don’t read too much into it either way.
No doubt there is plenty to pick apart in a film like The Great Wall, but it’s low hanging fruit and by and large the movie succeeds in what it sets out to do. Not a film you’re likely to remember a year from now, but if you’re in the mood for some creative, schlocky b-grade fun, The Great Wall could scratch your itch.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10