The Great Wall is surrounded by controversy, most notably for casting Matt Damon as the hero in a movie taking place entirely in ancient China. The director Yimou Zhang came out in defense of this pick, saying that the entire premise is that Damon’s character is an outsider and this wasn’t taking away from a role intended for an Asian actor. This is also China’s most expensive film, clocking in at $150 million to make. This movie will undoubtedly make that much back in global cinemas, even if it doesn’t do well in the United States. We’ve seen that phenomenon before, such as flops like Warcraft that are likely going to get sequels because of overseas profits. This movie also features a primarily Chinese cast and crew, though the focus on Damon is indeed initially troubling.
But let’s zoom out and look beyond the controversy. Is this movie even good?
Our lead William (Damon) and his buddy Tovar (Game of Thrones and Narcos star Pedro Pascal) are bad guys. They’re thieves and mercenaries, on a quest to find and steal “black powder” to sell to the highest bidder. They end up at the Great Wall, where the black powder resides, but their arrival happens to coincide with a giant attack on the wall from an evil reptile swarm called the taotie. These two foreigners prove themselves useful in combat, earning the trust of one of their commanders (Tian Jing). We also meet another European foreigner who has been held captive at the Wall for over 25 years (Willem Dafoe).
This movie isn’t horrible. After the trailers, I thought it would be.
Let’s start with the action, which is a (pun intended) double-edged sword. On paper, these incredible action sequences are thought-out and creative. We see moments here that combine action from Chinese martial arts films with siege warfare like Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, this entire movie feeling like the attack on Helm’s Deep. There are creative and interesting methods used in war here, making me nod my head in appreciation throughout. The downside is that these moments aren’t executed that well. There are cuts everywhere, meaning that any impact of these action moments is robbed from you. Great plan, horrible execution.
Visually the movie is fairly interesting as well. The Chinese army featured here is divided up into colorful ranks, where the blue armored warriors repel down the wall with spears, while the red armored warriors use bows to take out the reptiles from a distance. It’s colorful, though not necessarily functional. The creatures look decent, better than I anticipated, though nothing extraordinary. Maybe my expectations were so low that even passable visual effects impressed me.
What didn’t work?
You shouldn’t see this movie, at least not in theaters. It’ll be streaming on Netflix in a few months, don’t worry.
It all starts with Matt Damon. I’m not sure why he decided to do this movie because he seems disinterested in the whole thing. He also has a strange accent that sounds almost like a midwest United States accent but he’s supposed to be from some unnamed European country. It’s stilted and awkward.
About Damon’s character, there is quite a bit of “white savior” issues here, reminding me mostly of Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. Even though there are literally thousands of incredibly well-trained warriors, he is somehow able to show them all up and even at one point gets a round of applause from the army’s top commanders. I groaned. He shares the spotlight with several other badasses but it still feels like this fine-tuned army should have had this whole thing under control.
This brings up some plotholes and inconsistencies. There are moments later in the film in which the Wall utilizes deadly weapons and techniques that are super effective, though they don’t use these methods during the deadliest siege attack, which is the first attack featured in the film. They are scared for their lives, yet don’t use their strongest weapons? I understand the movie wanting to save some surprises, but it absolutely took me out of the film.
The biggest problem with the movie is that it misses opportunities and front loads the action. In the opening scene, we get literally thousands of these reptiles crawling the walls in an absolutely bonkers action scene. We don’t really get that again. Yes, there are a few more attacks, but they’re not like this. And, hopefully not to spoil anything, the climax is essentially a “Wait, what?” moment that takes place not at the Wall, after all of this preparation. After the opening scene, it’s all downhill.
Part of the reason it’s downhill is that the movie focuses on a weird romance subplot that is completely unneeded and unsatisfying. This movie’s strength is not its characters, it’s the beautiful blend of monster movie and martial arts film. The movie unfortunately forgets that.
On paper, this movie had a chance. An entire army of well-trained soldiers, with a dose of martial arts cinematography, taking on a massive horde of reptile monsters. Unfortunately, the movie focuses on a stilted performance by Matt Damon and the action throughout the film is increasingly disappointing, shot in a “quick cut” style that removes any feeling of actual impact. While the movie isn’t terrible, I can’t recommend it.