I don’t understand what just happened.
The Great Wall, the newest film from the renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Raise The Red Lantern) is everything a great fantasy should be. It’s a redemption story, about two mercenaries — William (Matt Damon) and Pero (Pedro Pascal) — who come to the Great Wall of China seeking to trade for (or steal, whichever is more convenient) the secret to gunpowder, but instead find themselves embroiled in a centuries-long war against fantastical, dragon-like monsters. There’s a noble warrior named Commander Lin (Jing Tian), part of a massive, elaborately armored and armed force of soldiers that dedicate their lives to fighting this war. It’s gorgeously shot, with Yimou’s trademark eye for brilliant color and composition, with innovative action choreography and amazing ability to turn the Wall into its own weapon, a complex collection of moving parts for both attacking and defending.
And the whole time I was watching it, I was thinking, “This should be better.”
Therein lies the great problem with The Great Wall. It features very good actors, a talented and prolific director, a slam dunk of a concept, and it somehow completely fails to grab its audience. It feels like a TV movie, with clunky dialogue and broad character tropes that never feel particularly compelling. There’s a centuries-long war against terrifying creatures, yet you’re never fully invested in what’s at stake. There’s a huge, CGI army of monsters that comes swarming at the wall, but because so much of the combat is distance-based — catapults, ballistas, and the like — there’s never much of the gruesome intimacy that comes with close-quarters combat. Instead, it all feels too far removed, and there’s no real life to much of it. On the rare occasions that one or two of the creatures breach the wall, things pick up and the action becomes a bit more engaging, but otherwise it’s too much like watching a video game in horde mode — masses of creatures without personality or emotion, just hurling themselves at the good guys
Things pick up a bit in the final act, which takes us away from the wall while also playing out the ethical dilemma faced by Damon and Pascal’s characters — fight or flee, honor or survival — but it’s all too quick and too easy. The finale, however, is awful. It’s the laziest of victories, giving them a magic button to defeat the undefeatable. It’s not quite uploading a virus into an alien computer using a fucking laptop, but damn it, it’s close. It takes a massive, millennia-long war and resolves it in minutes, giving you no real sense of loss or sacrifice.
I feel like this review should be longer, but honestly? There just isn’t much to say. The Great Wall is an aesthetically beautiful film, filled with color and costumes and beautiful people looking beautiful. But it’s also empty, a hollow, un-engaging, unexciting blur that somehow manages to be both beautiful and boring at the same time. The acting is fine, if unspectacular, with Pedro Pascal being the most fun to watch and Jing Tian coming in just behind him. Matt Damon is… there. That’s about the best I can say for him. He says noble things in a weird, unidentifiable accent that sounds sort of like a drunk American who stuffed his cheeks with cotton candy and then tried to impersonate Irish, Scottish, British, and… maybe Indian? accents ALL AT ONCE. That is to say, it’s mostly American, except when it’s not, and when it’s not, it’s just fucking nonsense. I guess that’s a good descriptor for the movie in general — The Great Wall tries to be something great, but… it’s mostly just nonsense.