“The Great Wall” is a monster film set in the Song dynasty. The Yimou Zhang-directed flick stars Tian Jiang, Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, and Pedro Pascal. Offering an alternate history and fantasy-inspired twist on the Great Wall of China’s origins, “The Great Wall” benefits from lovely sets, engaging action, and well-timed dry humor.
A group of mercenaries including William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) travel in search of black powder. They’re chased by Khitan bandits, and eventually escape. However the mercenaries are attacked by some strange monster. William cuts off its hand, and flee with Tovar to the Great Wall where they are captured by Chinese soldiers in the Nameless Order.
Led by General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), the Nameless Order protect the Imperial Cort by guarding against a monster horde. According to Commander Lin (Tian Jing), the alien monsters were sent to earth as a reminder against the evil of greed. William, a mercenary, opts to abandon quest for black powder and instead aid the Nameless Order in repelling the monster attack.
“The Great Wall” features en entertaining story. I appreciate the alternate history and fantasy elements which seem plucked fro folklore. There’s a neat dynamic between the characters, and a few surprises. It’s no shock that William eschews his solitary mercenary tendencies to instead aid the Nameless Order. But Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe) is a rather unique character. Additionally, Commander Lin’s relationship with William isn’t quite what it seems.
The set design is truly marvelous. “The Great Wall” is a gorgeous film to watch, and it’s easy to get distracted by the intricate set pieces. Internals of the Great Wall are detailed, and there’s a scene in the finale with stained glass that casts a gradient of color all about. Similarly, the wardrobe department performed phenomenally. Attention to detail is top notch, and “The Great Wall” feels like a high quality film.
A decent amount of the film is in Mandarin with English subtitles. Of his own film, Yimou explained to Entertainment Weekly “In many ways ‘The Great Wall’ is the opposite of what is being suggested. For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tentpole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry.” While Dafoe and Damon do headline, they don’t detract from the Chinese setting, and Damon doesn’t necessarily swoop in to save the day. Rather, he must trust Lin and work with her so together they can defeat the monsters.
I also appreciate the strong female character in Commander Lin. Jing Tian dominates and steals every scene she’s in. Unlike many blockbusters, there’s not a forced romance that plays out in a cliche manner. However, “The Great Wall” is rather predictable. Moreover, for an action film and one starring Matt Damon, it’s surprisingly calm. Whereas I do appreciate the relatively plodding take that diverges from traditional action flicks, the ending is rather anticlimactic. It’s not quite as slow as “47 Ronin,” which I rather enjoyed, but it’s certainly much more downplayed than similar movies.
Overall however, “The Great Wall” remains an entertaining romp. It’s pretty to watch, well acted, and shockingly humorous. Although the trailer posits “The Great Wall” as an action film, and that it is, there’s quite a bit of dry humor. The screenplay is sharp, with witty dialogue. Ultimately, “The Great Wall” may not be a great film, but it’s still a fun 104 minutes.