Chinese director Zhang Yimou teams with a trio of American writers to bring audiences The Great Wall. Well, is it…great?
Hardly. Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal star as mercenaries who have come to China in the 11th century to find gun powder, which everyone refers to as “black powder.” They are captured by Chinese forces and held prisoner at the Great Wall, where the soldiers of the Nameless Order are prepping for an attack from otherworldly monsters the Chinese call Tao Ties. Damon and Pascal’s characters get pulled into the conflict and have to decide whether to continue with their quest and escape or help the Nameless Order against their relentless foe.
The Great Wall boasts some nice effects and action—although there was one effects shot at the end at which I outright laughed out loud—but the story is completely generic and frequently abandons logic. The “meh” story doesn’t surprise me after finding out that two of the screenwriters involved are Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, who both collaborated on Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I was surprised that Max Brooks was involved in crafting the story and that Tony Gilroy was the third credited screenwriter, but I have to imagine that Damon brought in his Jason Bourne trilogy collaborator to polish the script. There is some nice banter between Damon and Pascal—I really enjoyed their camaraderie—but Willem Dafoe is completely wasted in his role as little more than a plot device. Also, I could never place Damon’s accent, which was maddening. I was impressed with the scale and spectacle of Yimou’s vision—unless the CGI was a lot better than I’m giving credit for, I’m fairly certain all the Chinese extras were real people—but unfortunately, they are gathered together for a weak story that falls apart the minute you start to think about it. The Nameless Order has all sorts of weapons—including the gunpowder—but for some reason they start off with weak weapons against what seems like an ocean of foes. I would think that the gunpowder would be the first option.
Despite the protestations of the filmmakers, Damon’s character, who is a ridiculously skilled warrior, does indeed come across as the white savior of Nameless Order and that was off-putting in this day and age, especially when there was such a deep Chinese cast assembled here. Jing Tian is the standout as Commander Mae Lin. She has the most interaction with Damon and is right in the thick of the fighting, which was refreshing. I also enjoyed Andy Lau as Strategist Wang, who is kind of the scientist of the Nameless Order as he tries to understand the enemy and figure out how to beat them.
Overall, The Great Wall has some entertaining moments, but ultimately it is a colorful spectacle with a limp story that never really inspires much excitement. Perhaps if the film had been a bit longer, some of the problem elements could have been developed a bit more, but what we have here is, at best, an afternoon diversion on cable.