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The Chinese film market is steadily breaching its borders and as interest from a few well-received and highly acclaimed movies over the past few decades have helped in securing that interest, it’s a good sign that more collaborative efforts between Western and Asian studios are making their way into theaters. With The Great Wall, a movie that has had its share of controversy over its casting, the film actually is a well-made and culturally representative work that has its flaws but still entertains.
During the Song dynasty, around the 1060s, Westerners William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are all that remain of twenty men looking for fabled “black powder,” an explosive compound that could tip the power of warfare. This after they outrun a gang of bandits and the two are trapped in a cave where William kills a strange beast, hacking off one of it’s giant lizard-like hands.
Not long after, still on the run, they come upon a massive wall, capped by highly-skilled soldiers called the Nameless Order, who capture them and bind them, bringing them before their leaders General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Commander Lin (Jing Tian), who lead five unites of supremely trained archers and fighters, including a legion of women, in defense of a fearsome horde of monsters called Taoties that attack like a swarm, ravenous for blood, rising up every sixty years, and who are expected to return several weeks from now.
When the creatures suddenly attack though, Willam and Tovar prove themselves worthy in a fight and become honored guests of the Order, and meet a fellow European named Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who came twenty-five years earlier on a similar mission and, once captured, remained with the Chinese as a language teacher. With the monsters regrouping, and William taken by the idea of honorable service, he looks to the battlefield as a way redeem his past and fight for something true.
Directed by Yimou Zhang, The Great Wall is a fantasy epic that brings a legend to life with one of the largest Chinese cast films in history, and currently the most expensive ever shot in the country. That money is put to good use though with some impressive visuals and large-scale battles and sets that give the film a terrific sense of time and place, even if the premise, at least the defense of a single location, has seen its share of screen time in the past twenty years. Zhang, who has been making movies since the late 1980s, including House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Hero (2002), puts together some rousing set pieces, and knows action well, and the the substitution of monsters rather than men makes for some chilling moments.
Issues arise though with fatigue, a common problem with the genre, as the second half loses some of its momentum as the fighting becomes the movie rather than the characters. As the battles naturally escalate, eventually taking to the skies in lantern-powered airships, the movie can’t sustain the same interest inspired by its start. Damon does okay, though it’s not his best work, and Dafoe is basically a cameo, but it’s the excellent Chinese cast that compels better. While Damon might give the film a Western hook in getting international audiences in theaters, the movie is a great showcase for getting more eyes on Chinese cinema, a plus in any column.
The Great Wall is often a visually stunning film that keeps true to its fantastical lore, suspending bits of logic in favor of action and suspense. The Taoties are a clever creation, beasts that prove themselves smarter than they appear, with a language and even honor as they drag away their dead from the battlefield, even if they are scourge that threatens all of mankind. While the potential for something more impactful and perhaps seeped in deeper meaning might have served it better, if you’re one for massive scale fighting, this will hit the mark. However, for most, a disappointing performance from Damon and a general lack of investment to the characters will leave this highly ambitious film a fun but ultimately uninspiring experience.
Movie description: The Great Wall is a 2017 action-adventure film about a European mercenary in China who comes upon the Great Wall, finding a battalion of elite soldiers who use it to defend against monstrous creatures.
Director(s): Yimou Zhang
Actor(s): Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe
Genre: Action, Fantasy