TL;DR – The action sequences are some of the best I have seen in a very long time, truly epic in scope, the only problem is you have to sit through a lot of rubbish in between it
Score – 3 out of 5 stars
The Great Wall is interesting just from its very existence, it is the most expensive movie ever made in China, and it is a real indicator of the continued rise of Chinese cinema and the continued push of Chinese soft power diplomacy. Like Kung Fu Yoga, this leads to some interesting features, but it also leads to some issues. The Great Wall ends up being a film that is dependent on its action sequences because there is not a lot else going for it.
Now The Great Wall didn’t start off on the best foot when the first trailers dropped, a lot of commentators accused it of whitewashing or some sort of spin on the white saviour trope. After watching it myself, I can honestly say I don’t think The Great Wall falls into either category, however that does not mean there aren’t problematic features. Instead of it being a case of white saviour, it is almost the reverse that is happening, William (Matt Damon) spends most of the first act walking around being amazed by the Chinese technology, army size, combat prowess, and his usefulness mostly comes from being lucky with finding a magnetic rock and being good with his bow. As well as this, while the film is not completely clear as to what timeframe it is representing, from the style of armour, buildings etc it feels about the time that European explorers were venturing towards China, so contextually it fits. Indeed, if there are some awkward stereotypes here it’s the representation of the character from Spain, in the first battle Pero (Pedro Pascal) takes on the guise of a matador … for some reason. As well as this, and this is quite common in the genre, the movie does not have a good view of the Imperial Chinese Emperor nor the court/bureaucracy that sounds him.
When it does come to the action The Great Wall does a really good job of bringing that epic feel. Indeed part of it is just the sheer number of people involved, like Battle of Helms Deep levels of people involved. While it doesn’t quite work out as well when the monsters get to the top of the Wall, the archery and weapons built into the Wall itself are fascinating. Another thing that works in The Great Wall’s favour is the battle choreography, especially of the Crane Troop, it is really amazing to watch them swan dive into the enemy below. There is also a good use of drums to both communicate to the other towers and to give a pounding percussion to underscore the action on the screen. As well as this, the action can get quite brutal at times, taking on the same levels of brutality as the Mosasaurus scene from Jurassic World. Though there are more than a few, ‘yep you’d be dead’ moments throughout.
When it comes to the character they are all fine, like I don’t know what accent Matt Damon is doing as William, but he equips himself well. It was interesting to see Willem Dafoe play a much more reserved role as you normally see, though it did feel like that bit of a waste of his talents. I have to say I really liked the performance of Andy Lau who played the chief strategist, there was something about this performance that really showed his strength of character and command. Also, Jing Tian showed a great use of physicality as Commander Lin, and is a very believable commander of her troops. The one issue with the characters comes mostly from their arc, either the characters are so unimportant they have no arc, or if they do it is the most predictable arc you could imagine.
One area that The Great Wall really does well is in the overall design of the weapons, costumes, monsters, and the Wall itself. Behind the production of The Great Wall are the two powerhouses of effects Industrial Light and Magic and Weta Workshop. You could have a terrible film but if you used them it would be a very good looking terrible film. The creature designs are quite interesting, though it would have been nice to see a bit more variety as it does get a bit bland when there is just a sea of green ahead of you. Once you get past the Power ranger/anime quality to the armour, the use of colour actually helps in the large battle sequences. Just in general the sets are really good, and the CGI to build the larger cities is ok, not the best in the world but serviceable for a movie like this. Indeed The Great Wall is greatly helped by its locations, the rainbow hills, and the desert plains are gorgeous.
While I have touched on this we really need to talk about it, the big issue with The Great Wall, is not its action sequences, those are amazing, the big problem is everything that happens in-between the action sequences that makes The Great Wall a bit painful to sit through at times. The dialogue is really clichéd and just comes off as people talking at each other and not to each other. This means there is no flow to the dialogue, and this is not just because people are talking different languages and someone needs to translate, because you can make that work, it is just not very engaging. Also there are while scenes that don’t really go anywhere, like we have this whole big thing where we get William out on one of the cranes only for him to go no ‘I’m not going to jump because I don’t trust people’, it’s just a waste of five minutes and it happens quite often. As I mention most of the character arcs are completely predictable, but they are so predictable and combined with macguffins, coincidence after coincidence and you can start to see the gears at work and that is never a good sign for a film.
In the end, can I recommend The Great Wall, yes/no, if you go see it you will probably find parts of it enjoyable, and it is interesting from a number of perspectives, however, I don’t think you really need to seek it out if it is not already interesting to you. I think in the future The Great Wall will not really be remembered for the film itself but what it represented a big step forward for the Chinese film industry, and that by itself is very interesting.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Trailer – Click Here to View (all trailers have heavy spoilers)
Directed by – Zhang Yimou
Screenplay by – Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro & Tony Gilroy
Story by – Max Brooks, Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz
Music by – Ramin Djawadi
Cinematography by – Stuart Dryburgh & Zhao Xiaoding
Starring – Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng, Lu Han, Lin Gengxin, Chen Xuedong, Huang Xuan & Wang Junkai
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: 14A; NZ: M; UK: 12A; USA: PG-13