Nobody ever said being a trailblazer was glorious, or pretty – but at least The Great Wall gets the latter right.
The film transports us back to a time of ancient Chinese legend, where we meet vagabond warriors William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), last survivors of their expedition group. The two mercenaries have come seeking the fortune of a mythic black powder with the power of fire – instead, they are attacked by a strange beast as the near the Great Wall. After slaying the beast, William and Tovar are brought to The Nameless Order, a highly-trained military force of the Song Dynasty, which stands atop The Great Wall, guarding the realm from the Taoties, a swarm of monstrous hive-minded beasts, all led by a highly intelligent queen.
At first, the outsiders are treated with suspicion and scorn (with good reason); however, as William sees the courage and beauty of warriors like Commander Lin (Jing Tian) and her Crane Troop, his motivation of greed slowly evolves into the same sense of larger duty that Nameless Order honors.
The directorial work of House of Flying Daggers’ Yimou Zhang, The Great Wall is a visually spectacular and thrilling action movie experience – which doesn’t save it from often being incredibly silly and hokey, as well. Still, if nothing else, the film is an intriguing example of blockbuster movie making now truly being done on a global scale – but like most bold prototypes, it’s not without its flaws.
Visually, Zhang’s penchant for vibrant color and elaborate set design is on full display, with a few well designed set pieces (mostly along the wall) from which to stage some very exciting and uniquely designed battle sequences. It’s like three of those big Game of Thrones battle episodes rolled into one film, and just as thrilling – even though the opponents are some well designed by often poorly rendered CGI monsters.
The cast is what sells all that green screen and CG visual effects cannot. Damon commits to a character that often oscillates between badass cool and totally ridiculous – as does his attempt at an Olde English accent – but thankfully, Game of Thrones breakout Pedro Pascal is on hand to help carry things. Between the Latin actor’s wit and charisma and some much-needed script work by Bourne franchise’s Tony Gilroy and Narcos team Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, the actual dialogue and banter between characters is often quite funny and sharp. Willem Dafoe floats in and out of the film, often providing some nice crass levity along the way.
The Asian cast is a mix of newer talent like crossover breakout Tian Jing (Pacific Rim: Uprising, Kong: Skull Island) and older stars like Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, House of Flying Daggers) and Hanyu Zhang (Assembly). All in all, even minor roles get filled with some big names, and the ensemble (the entire international mix) works very well together. All the so-called controversy turns out to unwarranted: the story is in no way outdated or offensive with its “strangers in a strange land” premise. From race to gender, the scales are nicely balanced.
In the end, The Great Wall is good matinee-style viewing for the action/martial arts movie crowd. It’s not going to deliver a full ticket price experience – and certainly doesn’t require a 3D viewing, as the technique is employed in kitschy ways (arrows flying out at you, etc.) that add unneeded gimmickry to an otherwise good-looking film.