The Great Wall: Film Review
Cast: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal
Director: Yimou Zhang
On paper, it's easy to see why The Great Wall exists.
A Chinese director (famed for The House of Flying Daggers and Hero), a Western star (Matt Damon) and a chance to concoct a Chinese - US co-production to rake in some of the take of a Chinese box office.
After all, xXx - The Return of Xander Cage tried to negotiate similar waters.
But on screen, the CGI creature-feature feels more like a gloriously costumed B-movie that never scales the emotional heights it could have easily achieved.
Damon is William, a mercenary who's part of a band of men after the black powder for its magic properties to turn air into fire. As the group's wittled slowly down, William and his fellow conspirator Tovar (Game of Thrones' Pedro Pascal, the film's comic relief) find themselves attacked by a mystical creature and captured by the armies on the Great Wall.
Led by the Nameless Order, the duo is let into confidences when they produce the slaughtered creature and discover an endless eternal war is being fought between the marauding relentless Tao Tei and the protectors of the Wall....
An emotionless bedraggled Damon as William, complete with mumbling bizarre Irish brogue, initially does little to dispel the feeling that The Great Wall is a a CGI fest that plays up its legends element and the fantastical edges.
Characters within the film aren't exactly well developed, and certainly William's behaviour sits at odds with any decisions he makes further on in the film (largely, due to a lack of back-grounding) that propel portions of the narrative.
While the white-wash debate has dogged the film, it's perhaps pertinent to note that most of the Western behaviour is that of rapscallions and skull-duggery. From Defoe's Mad Monk-esque wannabe thief to Tovar's plunder-them-and-run ethos, only William changes his MO due to exposure to the Chinese traits of honour and trust. Sure, there are moments when the white man saves the day, but largely it's due to a shift in mind-set and needs to be viewed as such.
However, despite some truly impressive costuming and eye to detail from WETA's props to the sumptuous colourful costumes to differentiate the wall-based fighters (though reminiscent of the Power Rangers' colourings), the Nameless Order is eye-poppingly gorgeous. And shonky CGI aside, the initial attack on the Wall and the subsequent holding off of the Tao Tei is solidly executed, a visual symphony of a Cirque du Soleil themed attack that benefits more from the human touch than the endless rows of creatures surging towards it.
It's just a shame that The Great Wall doesn't embrace enough of its lunacy and premise of aliens invading the Wall of China and the end effect is an undeniably B-movie film that's soulless on the human front.
With weaker Chinese characters propping up parts of proceedings (Jing's Commander Lin starts off promisingly before being confined to the ramparts' sidelines and sharing glances with Damon's William), the film needed either a stronger script and interactions to pull it through or less reliance on the slow-mo CGI critters flying through the air approach to keep the 100 minutes alive.
With its video game ethos, wannabe epic and questionable CGI, The Great Wall hides a kernel of an intriguing and entertaining film. It's just unfortunate that the severe under-cooking of many of the elements within mean this is one wall that's actually not really worth scaling.