Movie Review: The Great Wall 长城

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The Great Wall was recently released in China with much hype. Directed by the Zhang Yimou (director of Raise the Red Lantern, among many other critically-acclaimed films as well as the famed opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics), and starring Matt Damon, it is bilingual and the first truly American and Chinese coproduction. Suffice to say, expectations were high.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to the high expectations, the film has already been poorly received and critically panned in China. However, for a causal audience member not steeped in fifth-generation Chinese cinema film buff lore, it can still make for an enjoyable romp. If one just forgets to consider the tide of Hollywood pandering to China, not to mention ignoring problematic ‘white savior’ tropes, it is possible to see The Great Wall as a decent and fun film.

Taken for what it is, Zhang’s latest does succeed at being an exciting fantasy adventure about Western explorers fighting monsters in an ancient Chinese setting. Suspension of disbelief always required, the story opens with a couple of horse-riding mercenaries seeking mysterious explosive black powder. Eventually they make it to the Great Wall, where they meet Damon’s love interest Commander Lin played by Jing Tian.

Matt Damon more or less pulls off the medieval accent passably, and his costar Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal is excellent and usually outshines Damon in scenes featuring both of them. The pair of warriors have good chemistry as buddy action films go, although with a somewhat predictable character arc as they break up and get back together. Pascal’s Hispanic heritage is used for corny effect (although the actor is from Chile, he plays a Spaniard), complete with a completely unnecessary “bullfighting” scene.

Willem Dafoe is also utilized well as a sniveling fellow Westerner. Andy Lau’s grizzled military officer rounds out the cast as the requisite token Chinese star, but he is often left behind by the star power of the rest of the cast.

The plot moves quickly and doesn’t wait long to jump into Peter Jackson-style tower sieges. The monsters are called Taotie and the special effects are indeed Hollywood level, although at this point in cinema history it’s long since past groundbreaking to see mass hordes of demons in epically intricate battles. When the scenes go smaller scale into warriors battle monsters individually, the carefully honed craft of Chinese wushu-style film proves to be more engaging than the indulgences of high-end Hollywood CGI war.

As the plot goes, there are some logistics that make little sense. The moral lessons of trust and loyalty are heavy handed. The origin story of the monsters didn’t seem to have much thought at all behind it, although one does suppose that it’s a fantasy universe so why not. And in particular, the color-coded uniforms for the Chinese army is especially cheesey and reminiscent of those childish superheroes the Power Rangers. The climatic final battle in the capital city does make up for much of the flaws of the film, but overall The Great Wall is not meant to be taken so seriously in the first place.

Whether or not Zhang Yimou has “sold out” as some accuse, The Great Wall was never meant to be his finest work. It probably won’t succeed as a breakout introduction of Chinese cinema for Western audiences, but of those who do watch the film it’s definitely worth taking the time to see what all the fuss has been about.

This reviewer recommends low expectations. Don’t think too much, and just enjoy it for what it is: A fun, dumb Hollywood fantasy movie which just happens to take place in China.

The Great Wall will be released in America on February 17th.