Starring Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Hanyu Zhang, Eddie Peng, Han Lu, Kenny Lin, Xuan Huang
2 STARS (out of 5)
There really is still a good market for a great ‘battle’ movie – when done well, films based around epic fights can either make for visual spectacles or they can risk becoming dull, trudging flops that fail to engage with audiences due to poor attention given to other areas of film-making. It’s arguable that HBO’s Game of Thrones really set the bar high for battle drama in recent years, even going so far as to inspiring movie-making. The Great Wall is an example of a shift in cinema towards grandiosity, and as the most expensive US-Chinese movie ever devised, both effort and expense clearly show. It’s just a shame, therefore, that it’s so ultimately underwhelming.
Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal find themselves wrapped up in a bizarre war having been captured by an ancient military order preparing to face off against an alien invasion upon the Great Wall of China. From here, the two captives must both impress the military and apply their own mercenary skills in combat against the invaders – in a war set in the time of an ancient dynasty where humanity truly is at stake. It’s as defiantly silly as it sounds, but sadly nowhere near as fun.
The Great Wall is a great visual spectacle, it’s hard to deny, and it will likely serve well in 3D. Damon and Pascal are capable leads and, accusations of ‘white washing’ aside, the movie doesn’t falter for their inclusion. The movie’s helmed by celebrated director Zhang Yimou, who is perhaps best known for the internationally popular House of Flying Daggers – and, generally, his films focus on triumph over adversity. Certainly, then, The Great Wall is hardly new territory for him, but the again – it is such an odd premise that it’s new territory for pretty much everyone else. Ancient Chinese military versus big green aliens? On paper, it’s delightfully surreal – which makes its execution all the more disappointing.
For all the movie’s stunt work and aesthetic appeal (along with its controversial star power), it’s oddly underwhelming – likely due to a painfully rigid plot structure and a number of contrived conveniences that really betray the clear creative vision that has bled through into its visuals. Perhaps similarly to how underwhelming Independence Day Resurgence was last year, The Great Wall is the cinematic equivalent of a car that looks fantastic, has all the optional extras but lacks a working engine – it’s oddly difficult to detail exactly where the execution goes wrong. There’s a capable cast, an intriguing story and plenty of spectacle – but everything else just doesn’t seem particularly original, or inspiring. For a tale centred around ancient monsters attacking the Great Wall of China, that’s extremely disappointing.
That being said, it perhaps fulfils its duties as an action movie. It certainly keeps interest in terms of its most expensive facets – its visuals – if it remains fairly uninteresting otherwise. Action movies have come and gone which are far, far worse – consider last year’s London Has Fallen, which managed to be deathly dull, insipidly stupid and callously offensive in equal measure – The Great Wall at least seems to know its audience well, though this doesn’t excuse the heavy weighting towards spectacle over meatier aspects. Damon and Dafoe have certainly been in better roles and while they are welcome here, they’ve certainly been better. Dafoe, in fact, was more effective in Mr Bean’s Holiday – this being my controversial opinion of the week.
The Great Wall - Official Trailer (Legendary)
We are coming out of the graveyard period of the year where we are bombarded with dodgy horror movies and Oscar releases among others – where the bigger, blockbustier picture start to seep through. The Great Wall’s placing so early in the year is perhaps telling, hot on the heels of potential box office rivals in The Lego Batman Movie and Fifty Shades Darker – and while it may arrive at a time where it could do some serious ticket-selling, it’s unlikely it will stay too long at the top of the charts. This, I genuinely believe, is due to its lasting appeal – there really isn’t much.
My final thoughts on this movie is this, however – in many ways, this is a very original movie. For all who may criticise Hollywood for lacking ideas, take a look at this – it’s a shame, however, that its execution is so washed-out, as the concept of ancient Chinese soldiers kicking monster butt really is fantastic on paper. It has a remarkable director and has spent its money well – but it likely won’t weather the years well, and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see it end up as a cult classic in the decades to follow, rather than the action standard it may hope to be. Is it money well spent generally? I’m not so sure – but there are worse nights out at the cinema.