Zhang Yimou’s first Hollywood feature feels like it was doomed to mediocrity from the start. Despite the credentials (this is the director of Hero, after all), the film appeared to offer up Hollywood’s worst impulses: giant messes of CGI, and, worse still, a “White Saviour” to rescue the Chinese. The Great Wall mainly delivers the former, as most of Damon’s screentime is spent as an alien Westerner there to learn about what the hell is going on (while wielding an Irish accent that seems to change every minute).
Zhang’s flashes of bright, bold colour, insane wire work and knack for coordinating large crowds provide some thrills, however. The most entertaining flashes of action come from the might and physical prowess of the “Nameless Order” that guards the walls, rather than the monsters themselves. There could have been a lot more to explore in the supposedly secret culture of warriors that Damon and Pascal’s mercenaries stumble upon, but it’s mostly window dressing (and an excuse to see some awesome pirouettes).
Despite the fairly crazy concept, the plot feels too basic, and isn’t helped along by some fairly uninspiring acting. Jian Ting’s Commander of the Blue Troop (entirely comprised of women that leap off the wall with spears; it’s great) shows the most promise, but loses out on any emotional complexity.
A sometimes entertaining, but otherwise forgettable two hours, The Great Wall sounds cool on paper, but feels more like a business deal than a complete film. There are hints of the gracefully filmed spectacle that Zhang made a name for himself with, but no more than that. The whitewashing controversy is the least of this film’s problems.
CAST: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau
DIRECTOR: Zhang Yimou
WRITERS: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy
SYNOPSIS: European mercenaries searching for black powder become embroiled in the defense of the Great Wall of China against a horde of monstrous creatures.