Much like the 8,851-km-long barrier that bears the same name, Chinese director Zhang Yimou's latest action adventure, The Great Wall, is intriguing primarily because of its sheer size. The most expensive film ever shot entirely in China, the $150 million USD production hired hundreds of extras and actors, included creating three giant walls to pose as the architectural wonder and reportedly required over 100 translators on set to help the director communicate with his international crew.
But bigger isn't always better, and this east-meets-west epic starring Matt Damon is proof of that.
Set during the Song dynasty some 1700 years ago, The Great Wall tells the mythical tale of two mercenaries, William (Damon) and Tovar (Narcos' Pedro Pascal), who stumble upon the awe-inspiring structure while searching for explosive "black powder" in the Far East. Captured by the wall's Imperial Army, and carrying with them the hand of an unknown creature severed in battle the night before, the pair learn about a mysterious alien race that crash landed on earth years ago and awakens every six decades to feast on the living.
With the horde of monsters advancing across Northern China, the pair decide to take up arms and fight off the scourge with the soldiers (in return for their freedom); because this is a movie by the guy who did House of Flying Daggers and Hero, epic acrobatic fight scenes ensue.
Before the movie was even originally released in China this past December, The Great Wall's biggest criticism had to do with the film pushing a white saviour narrative. Zhang has fought that opinion, as well as other accusations of whitewashing, in the press, saying that he wanted to make a film "deeply rooted in Chinese culture." But obviously casting Damon and Pascal (as well as supporting American actor Willem Dafoe, whose screen time is severely limited) was done in an attempt to give the movie global (read: Western) appeal.
The Great Wall's second biggest problem is that it's way too middle-of-the-road for a movie with such a stunning setting, a huge crew and solid special effects (contrary to early leaked footage). The action is relentless, but easily forgettable from one scene to the next; the majority of Damon's speaking time is filled with hammy one-liners (making matters worse is that his character, a soldier-for-hire, is said to have grown up in countries all around the world, leading to one of the most awful and unusual accents on screen in recent memory); and the story is so bare bones, it's over before you even know it.
With The Great Wall, Zhang has the world's attention. Yet, instead of innovating or providing a story that's actually significant to Chinese culture, he's given us another variation on something we've all seen before. (Universal)