The Great Wall is well-made enough to forgive its narrative flaws and lackluster performance by Matt Damon
Going into The Great Wall, expectations were both high and terribly low. Besides the whitewashing scandal — more on that later — the trailer wasn’t well cut enough to truly ratchet up any excitement. However, the names behind the project were. No, not Matt Damon, god help us, but director Zhang Yimou brought a certain level of gravitas to the project. He is a three-time nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and is best known for House of Flying Daggers and Hero — many people consider the latter one of the most beautifully constructed movies ever made. So, with his first foray into English-language filmmaking, I was expecting a certain level of craft. He delivered, and then some. This is perhaps the best-crafted fantasy action movie since The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. One sequence even brings back memories of the famous Helm’s Deep battle in The Fellowship of the Ring. On the other hand, narratively the film is perhaps the dullest I’ve had to sit through recently.
The Great Wall has come with countless myths and legends, as the opening text states, and the movie tells just one of them. William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are traders — or thieves — in China looking for fabled black powder. After being attacked by a mysterious beast, they stumble upon the wall and are taken prisoner. There they find a massive army preparing for some attack. However, the army isn’t human. Every 60 years — because 100 years is too long to wait — an army of lizard-like monsters called the Tao Tei emerge from a mountain and kill anything in their path to feed their queen. The wall was built to protect the capital city from attack.
Once Garin and Tovar are captured, the first wave attacks arrive. Led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), the army — The Nameless Order — prepares to defend the wall. The members of the army wear different colored armor — blue, purple, or red — depending on their duty during the battle. From bungee cords to tar covered cannonballs launched from giant catapults to perfectly coordinated arrows, the army is well trained and moves as one. The sequence is easily the best of the movie and an incredible piece of filmmaking. The costume design by Mayes C. Rubeo is intricately put together but works best on a massive scale. The colors work together on screen to form a massive and colorful block against the harsh grays and browns of the wall and surrounding landscape. It’s hard to think of a movie whose work could surpass it this year. Conversely, the production design is more muted, but the detail is still there. The enormous and complex designs of the weapons are pulled right out of a fantasy-obsessed 11-year-old brain and are realized right before your eyes. The metal work on the swords, furniture, and to objects as small as candle holders is exquisite. It’s a shame that the movie couldn’t hold up to that first battle sequence.
From there, it’s a steep downhill dive. While the visual style is great, the narrative just isn’t there. There’s no point in even going into it because there’s not much to nitpick at. It follows the usual formula of movies like this. And while Jing Tian as Commander Lin Mae is a really great lead, Damon’s performance — especially that kind of generalized European accent that switches between English and Irish — pulls you out of the movie instantly.
To address the elephant in the room, I don’t believe this was a case of Hollywood whitewashing. Damon’s role is written for a westerner, which is integral to the plot. He is regularly out skilled and marvels at the army’s ability to work together — something that Commander Lin Mae points out he is not good at. Could this movie have been done without a western character in it? Yeah, probably. But it isn’t whitewashing.
The Great Wall has a mighty fall from grace after the incredible first battle sequence. Even the final action set piece falls flat. But, as with every Zhang Yimou movie, it is fantastically well-made and produced, which certainly elevates it. If you’re looking for mindless action and ridiculously cheesy storylines that you can laugh at, then The Great Wall will fill that void. It’s a solid matinee watch and beautiful to look at.