This past weekend, The Great Wall made it’s US debut in over three thousand theaters across the country. Despite a huge marketing campaign, the Fantasy/Adventure film starring Matt Damon (The Bourne Identity, Team America World Police) failed to make a stamp at the box office. There have been a handful of positive reviews and some sprinkles of negative ones, but the majority have just been “okay”. *Insert Kanye Shrug here*
If you are unfamiliar with the film’s plot, it’s about a European mercenary named William (Damon) who is on a mission in China to find a mysterious new weapon called “Black Powder,” which is pretty much gun powder. When the film starts, they are on the run to avoid being captured and killed by a group of bandits. That’s when William and his partner Tovar, played by Pedro Pascal (Game Of Thrones), find safe haven behind the Great Wall of China. Well, they are actually captured and imprisoned, but it beats being in the hot sun running for your life, am I right? They suddenly find themselves in the middle of a battle between the defenders of the wall and a relentless horde of overgrown lizard creatures. Yes, you read that right! In this film, the Great Wall of China was built to protect the country from being overrun by dragons. Don’t worry, it gets better from here. As the plot moves along, William’s character becomes an ally to Commander Lin Mae, played by Chinese actress Tian Jang (The Man From Macau) and he sets aside his own personal agenda to help them win the war because, of course, only he can.
Taking the lead on this project is famed Chinese director Yimou Zhang who brought us visually stunning, and action packed, films like Hero and House Of Flying Daggers. Both of those films were void of any type of “western” influence and were well received by casual movie goers and critics alike. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about The Great Wall, which falls flat due to a lack of innovation outside of the film’s main plot. The best thing about the story is its unintentional metaphor of how European settlers travel to a foreign land that is full of wealth, culture, and a moral compass, in order to steal and then profit from something that does not belong to them. However, this film isn’t all bad. With a director like Zhang, it would be a lie to say that this movie has no redeemable qualities.
Visually, this film was very appealing to the eye and I’m most certain that it had everything to do with having not one, but two Oscar nominated cinematographers working hard behind the camera; Stuart Dryburgh (Alice Through the Looking Glass) and Xiaoding Zhao (The Flowers of War). Combined with the beautifully detailed set design and the vibrant and regal costume choices, each frame could have been it’s own photograph. The design of the dragons is an entirely different story. Based on the plot, these creatures came from a meteor that fell from the sky hundreds of years ago. Their anatomy had somewhat of an extraterrestrial vibe. Along with the visuals, the action sequences were pretty enjoyable. The Chinese army had color coded factions, each trained in a specific area of combat as a way to diversify their attempts at defending themselves from their enemies. Even though it seemed like suicide, and a waste of resources, to build a machine that allows a soldier to bungee jump into a sea of blood thirsty monsters with only one weapon, that can only kill one monster at a time. But it was definitely fun to watch and that’s what matters, right?
But no matter how visually stunning a movie can make itself, it can never overshadow the most important aspect of all… The Story. The six writers involved in creating the story for The Great Wall have also been responsible for movies like World War Z, The Jason Bourne Franchise, and The Last Samurai, which would explain the typical Hollywood “white savior” plot line this film has been accused of recycling like many films before it. The script itself lacks any depth and the characters it attempts to make you care for are one dimensional. This happens in a lot of films but is still disappointing when you have heavy hitters like Willem Defoe (Spider-Man, John Wick), Andy Lau (Internal Affairs, House Of Flying Daggers), and Eddie Peng (Rise Of The Legend, The Monkey King 2) apart of your main cast. Their on screen presence is a waste of talent but surely those checks cleared and in the spirit of tax return season, it’s hard to be mad at that. Get that money Willem, get that money! Matt Damon did everything you could expect from a man with his talent… Be Matt Damon. His character’s arc was extremely predictable and the journey from the first act to the climax was absent of any intriguing moments that were memorable or even worthy of a gif. Universal and Legendary Pictures’ attempt at casting an A-list celebrity to draw people to the box office hurt this film more than helped it. It’s hard not to consider if this film could have been much more enjoyable had it been free of any “western” influences and told a fictional tale that honored Chinese culture much more authentically.
But make no mistake, if you are looking for a fun popcorn flick to put on while you simulataneously check your Facebook and eat a bag of Hot Cheetos, this is the movie for you. Don’t trust anyone who gives this movie a 10. But don’t trust anyone who gives it a 1. It’s not terrible but it won’t be the topic of discussion in the employee break room either. The Great Wall manages to successfully balance itself on a line that should be called Enjoyingly Forgettable.