Matt Damon leads the cast in Zhang Yimou’s Chinese fantasy film, “The Great Wall,” which is opening in theaters this week. And, if it seems like an odd choice to have Damon lead a cast in a movie about monsters attacking China that’s because it is. Beyond the story, the cast and crew is largely Chinese and the movie is being billed as “the largest film ever shot entirely in China,” but it is still Damon front and center.
Perhaps you’ve heard about this controversy before. I haven’t written of it here, but it has certainly been covered extensively elsewhere. Why then do I bring it up? Because I don’t see how to write a review of the movie where Damon’s casting isn’t the first thing discussed. I don’t know that I have an answer on it either. I don’t know if it’s okay to cast the movie this way, but I do know no review is complete without raising the question.
One of the big problems with the movie itself is that Damon’s role as William, a mercenary who travels to China looking for black powder (gunpowder), isn’t even that good. It is strictly standard and utterly bland hero stuff. William is, we are told by his friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal), not a good guy. William has done terrible things, he’s a liar and killer. Except that in no moment in the film is he that guy, he’s a hero the whole time. He sets off to trade for the black powder and when he sees the Chinese army on the Wall, battling for humanity, he immediately takes up their cause.
It is not very dramatic, but no non-action based scene in “The Great Wall” is terribly dramatic. It is all exceptionally mundane. Worse than that though is the fact that while individual action sequences do look good, they don’t make terribly much sense as part of the overall story.
To explain that, let me take a step back and explain that the Chinese army is on the Wall to fight evil monsters called the Tao Tei. These monsters show up every 60 years with a desire to feed their queen. Once the queen is killed, the monsters freeze (she sends out telepathic signals to them, controlling them) and can be slaughtered without fear. The battle is won for another six decades.
In the very first fight in the cycle this time around, the queen reveals herself and the Chinese army fails to kill her. They also fail to use any of the explosives they have created with black powder. So, essentially, they know that they are fighting for the survival of the planet; they know this is a great opportunity; and although the monsters are attacking several days early, the army is prepared, but they don’t use their best weapon. There is only one reason for this – if they use the black powder they could win the battle and the movie would be incredibly short. It just doesn’t make sense.
Moving on, above I stated that each individual battle does look good, and that’s certainly true, but they don’t look as good as—nor carry the same impact as—the big battles in “The Two Towers” and “Return of the King.” In size and scope they feel of a piece with those fights, but (perhaps due to the bland characters) don’t resonate as well.
The movie certainly has a lot of people in it, but most of them are just background individuals in the army. The most standout member of the cast is Jing Tian, who plays Lin Mae, a high ranking member of the Chinese army on the Wall and an early supporter of William’s. William Dafoe also appears in the movie, playing a one-time thief who has been forced to stay on the Wall for decades because… well, that’s not entirely clear. It is explained, but not in a way that makes sense as the film moves forward.
So, the action is good but not great, the story is bland and makes little sense, and Matt Damon who may shouldn’t have been cast in the first place doesn’t have a very good role. All is not a disaster however. When “The Great Wall” isn’t too busy swooping around and utilizing distracting 3D, one gets the opportunity to see that the costumes are amazing. There is a level of detail to them that is also echoed in the sets and props.
Visually then the movie is satisfying if not spectacular. It is at its best in it is depiction of this vast army on the Wall, their various roles, and they way they work together in order to fight the Tao Tei. During the first of these battles we also get a pretty fantastic drum beat from one of the groups on the Wall. This fight the high point of the movie and offers a sort of magic that the rest of the film cannot recapture.
In the end, too much of “The Great Wall” is perplexing. These issues start with the casting, move through the boring characters, on to the ill-considered plot, and end at the most exhilarating fight being the first major one. It all feels like a missed opportunity.
photo credit: Universal Pictures