by Philip Price
It was funny, when “The Great Wall” was to initially be released back in November or December of 2016 (which it still was in China) I imagined it to be Matt Damon's bid for the current Oscar season. Then, we finally caught our first glimpse of the film in late July just in time for Matt Damon's “Jason Bourne” to return to theaters. From that trailer alone it was clear this wasn't going to be the awards contender I imagined it to be based on the cast and other credentials, but rather that this was going to be something of an homage to the big budget action pictures of yesteryear. That it could potentially be one of those epics where ancient times were explored and mysteries explained via an entertaining interpretation was interesting and irrefutably intriguing. At the very least, the idea was this might be a good bit of fun and/or an inventive distraction that starred one of today's last-standing movie stars making the kind of movie only a true movie star could make. While all of that potential is still present on screen as the actual film unfolds what is not present is the sense of fun nor is the necessary entertainment factor that should seemingly come along with it. Rather, “The Great Wall” becomes something of a slog at only an hour and 45 minutes with the film dedicating a majority of its runtime to a subplot that should have been abandoned the moment these mysterious creatures, for which the wall was built to keep out, finally rear their ugly heads and wreak havoc. Instead, the three-man screenwriting team decide to give these creatures a convoluted backstory and point of motivation that is exactly the opposite of motivating - meaning it deters us not only from caring about these creatures, much less their victims, but does nothing to instill an investment in anything that is happening. If anything at all, it only motivates us to look at our watches more often. And thus, it is the script where “The Great Wall” fails most consistently as director Yimou Zhang certainly has the visual sense to accomplish what the screenplay requires and despite Damon's accent being in and out the cast largely made up of Chinese performers handle the drama and particularly the action well enough-it simply might have been more compelling had they better drama to work with.
Beginning by introducing us to a band of Europeans on the run in what is apparently country just a two-day ride short of the Great Wall, William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) barely escape the clutches of those chasing them. It is quickly established they and their band of surviving mercenaries are searching for gunpowder, but not all of them are destined to see the end of their journey. In the middle of the night they are attacked by an unseen beast-one who bleeds green blood and has the appendages of a beast not seen before by the likes of these men. Garin single-handedly defeats the beast, taking its dismembered foot with him and Tovar as they are the only surviving members of their company. Seeking refuge from what they expect to be more of the same kind of beasts Garin and Tovar are captured by native soldiers who take them back to what is now one of the great modern wonders of the world. The two men are brought before Commander Lin Mei (Tian Jing) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) who decide to keep them alive as they might be an asset in their fight against these nomadic creatures as they discover the severed foot and green blood on Garin's sword. Commander Mei and General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) have apparently been preparing for an all-out monster invasion for some 60-plus years given they have somehow figured out a timeline these monsters follow. As these things go, the monsters naturally decide to show up a few days early once the Europeans make their entrance. This all works out for the sake of Garin and Pero's lives though, as this invasion allows them the freedom to learn what they value most in life. Meaning Damon's Garin comes to realize his nobility and heroism are more important than the physical possessions he seeks for the sake of money. Pero is not so much working in the same line of thought though, as he meets Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another European who has been held hostage for many years and taught Commander Mei how to speak English. Ballard is ready to escape and sees the upcoming distraction of this invasion as the perfect opportunity for him to do so; encouraging Garin and Pero to follow his lead. It is in the midst of this war that decisions are made and characters are defined and that we, as an audience, are supposed to take away more than giant battle sequences and CGI, but with characters this thin and a narrative this predictable it is hard to be impressed by anything other than the spectacle, however empty it may be.
With a movie like “The Great Wall” it is best to simply go through the pros and cons of what the product has to offer due to the fact that if you're more or less sold on a movie such as this based on the marketing alone the fact is you'll likely enjoy it. That said, it's easy for me to have a good time with an action movie that makes me think it's a mindless action flick, but eventually shows it has more on its brain and I didn't particularly care for much of this film. This is all to say that by listing the pros and cons of the film is to provide the best process of elimination there is for a member of the target demographic to determine if it actually has the aspects they might typically look for in a big budget actioner. I will say though, that with digital and OnDemand rental prices being as much as they are these days it might be worth your time and money to see something like “The Great Wall” at a matinee where at least the most appealing aspects of the film can be witnessed in the format they were meant to be consumed on. This brings us to the biggest pro Yimou's film has to offer which is naturally the visual scope and aesthetic. The film, from the opening chase sequence through a barren desert to the beautifully rendered title card that nearly transports us back to the days of large-scale practical epics implies that what is in store is a carefully crafted adventure tale that will have audiences just as enraptured in the plight of our protagonist as it will the set pieces that are guaranteed to blow our minds. Of course, with the passing of time comes conditioning and with conditioning comes desensitization. Modern audiences are accustomed to special effects-driven action sequences and an abundance of as much coming at them in droves and in three dimensions, so what is it that sets Yimou's vision apart from every other blockbuster? In “The Great Wall” you really feel as if you're working within the operation. Yimou goes through each of the divisions, each of the infantry's, and through each of the defense techniques that the Chinese army has developed and employed to put a stop to these beasts and the first time this army unfolds to display its full breadth of defenses and weapons there is a palpable sense to the bigness of it. It is massive and that is easily grasped as a viewer which isn't always an easy task. Also, the score from Ramin Djawadi is rather impressive and adds some sense of urgency to the proceedings despite the interest consistently waning on whether or not we as an audience care to be a part of such proceedings.
The cons: Damon's accent. From the outset it is unclear what the actor is trying to accomplish whether it be that of an Irish brand that seems to slip through from time to time or if it was simply a personal choice so as to distance the character from that of Damon's movie star persona and his familiar tone and dialect. Whatever he is doing it is one of those rare cases where it's hard to become accustomed to the voice change as the character doesn't speak enough for it to become normal, but still too much for it to not be distracting. Damon's Garin is intended to be the strong, silent type and he plays to those qualities well enough-there is no disputing the effectiveness of a Damon performance or the presence he brings with him-but rather that he is miscast here. He plays the role of strong-chinned American actor qualified to lead an ancient epic despite his heritage, but he doesn't fit the rogue explorer who learns life lessons from a set of unfortunate circumstances and an attraction to a Chinese Commander that will make him reconsider his priorities. It's not necessarily bad or even offensive, but rather it never gels with the rest of the film-Pascal seeming more natural in his role of a selfish mercenary than either of the more seasoned Damon and Dafoe. And while I can appreciate that the film attempts to develop Garin as more than just the white savior, but more as someone seeking absolution and redemption for his past sins the film never gestates on these character traits long enough for them to fully develop into anything other than stock arcs with outcomes we see coming from many miles away. Another major come down for the film is the many moments in which it is unintentionally funny whether this be through shot choice, extras looking confused, or a line reading. It's clear there was something of a language barrier at play here as some of these missteps seem to come more form a miscommunication or lack of comprehension rather than a flat out choice, but most interesting are the choices in what is shown and what isn't. Sometimes the film feels uber-extravagant in its taste for destruction and CGI creatures and other times it will choose to go with a reaction shot to what was supposedly a big explosion-as if explicitly stating the budget ran out at minute 96. This bringing us to the fact “The Great Wall” can at one point feel like an old school epic fantasy while the next looking and feeling like a SyFy channel original. The intentions were clearly ambitious and well-intentioned, but the final result delivers a piece of entertainment that, for all the promising factors in place, is rather anti-climactic.