Review: The Great Wall
Ah, the opening text which begins the film, which explains why you are here and the rules it plays by. The Great Wall was built to keep out invaders, some real and some legendary. This is one of those legendary yarns. A band of scrapped together killers and thieves from various European countries are on the hunt for black powder (they say it 5000 times in case you forget), a weapon that can wipe out several men at once. With their forces whittled down to two men, Matt Damon and Game of Thrones vet, Pedro Pascal, eventually make it to The Great Wall where a grand army called The Nameless Order awaits them, a force large enough to fight off a massive invasion. Why are they so prepared? Surely not for these two scrubs who show up unannounced at their door step. No, they face a horde of green critters who have emerged from a meteor representing man's greed. This batshit idea leads to a several siege battles, some of which are truly spectacular I must admit, but unfortunately for The Great Wall, it has several missteps taking away from everything they actually get right.
Matt Damon is doing okay work here as the reluctant hero, but seriously, it could have been Henry Cavill or Vin Diesel and it would not have mattered. The Asian cast surrounding our well-known Bostonian looks quite lovely, but the simple script hurts their well-meaning performances. Andy Lau has the most to do as Strategist Wang, the soul in charge of figuring out how to conquer the brutal hoard and it was cool to see him and Damon side by side, sparking memories of their respective roles in Infernal Affairs and The Departed.
The stunningly beautiful Tian Ling plays a fearless commander and frankly one of the coolest heroines in a Chinese epic fantasy. She no doubt takes a backseat to Matt Damon at times, but she is the one who truly rules the picture. Another disappointment is a completely wasted Willem Dafoe, whose role is handled with the grace of an elephant doing gymnastics. A weird mix of good and bad performances throughout makes for a staggering experience. On the plus side: the look of the army is quite amazing. They are color coded due to their various jobs, the most stunning being the women in blue who fearlessly dive off the wall, bungee cord-style, stealing the show from the men with ease.
With China's CGI not up to Hollywood's standards, I was surprised at the overall creature design, but even then they fall victim to bad visual moments, especially in the finale. Director Yimou Zhang, known best for the colorful, romantic cinema of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flowers, barely has time to shine here as he seems to be bogged down by the massive production, which is China’s biggest budgeted film yet. Dodgy 3D in dark fight scenes and quick cutting hurts the production, too. A major let down for fans of the veteran director but hopefully cool for fans of the Legendary Pictures brand of genre films that are loaded with critters and kaijus. This film is also not guilty of 'White Guy Saving the Asians' as some have feared. It's more of an 'Okay, I'll help and learn something about myself in the process' thing. Again, this is The Tian Jing Show and don't you forget it. I'm sure someone will have one of these snarling creatures as a collectable from Hot Toys in their room, so it isn't all bad, I guess. Just could have been so much more.