The Great Wall Review: The Perks Of Having Wall Power
by Fred Topel
Zhang Yimou has made some of the most exquisite films of Chinese cinema, from dramas like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern to his martial arts trilogy of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower. It is interesting to see what Yimou does with a massive Hollywood co-production, although the success is mixed.
Caught between two armies, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) opt to surrender to the army stationed at the Great Wall of China. It turns out the other army is an army of monsters whom the Chinese have been staving off. William joins Commander Lin (Jing Tian) in battling the creatures while Tovar just wants to make off with their gunpowder, a new invention in the era.
The best part of the movie is how skilled it shows the Chinese warriors are. Particularly, there is a whole squad of female warriors who have greater skills than the men because they’ve trained acrobatically with their lighter body weight. Also showing a woman like Lin can be a great leader is empowering.
Yimou continues to use color as a driving aesthetic. The armies have color coded armor identifying their skills and regiments. Later, rainbow lighting in tunnels and in a stained glass tower are striking. The famous red cliffs of the desert landscape also look stunning as William and Tovar first make their way to the Wall. I hope those were filmed on location and not as part of the New Zealand shoot.
The sets for the interior of the Wall are compelling. They have complex rigging with water wheels and pulleys, a smaller scale version of the Citadel from Mad Max: Fury Road. Perhaps because The Great Wall is set during actual history, they didn’t want to go too far beyond what actually might have existed, let alone copy another movie too much. Unfortunately, the extreme fog surrounding the top of the Wall makes it feel smaller and more confined than it should. In reality, the fog is covering the hundreds of miles of Wall that did not actually exist on the set. If the alternative would be green screen backgrounds with artificially extended sets, that’s no better.
It would probably be more fun to watch this amazing army battle another human army. At least that would involve real people. The war drums and preparations for battle feel like an authentic Chinese epic. Then once the battle begins it’s all animated, not only the creatures but all the arrows and fireballs are fake too.
For about the last 10 years, Chinese filmmakers have begun experimenting with computer graphics. So viewers have seen them go through the same learning curve American filmmakers did in the ‘90s after Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. But Legendary and Universal have experience with CGI and all of the artists who work for visual effects companies have the resources and experiences to give the creatures a more tangible feel. The creature design itself is unmemorable too.
Each battle scene is different, so fortunately it never feels repetitive. Every confrontation uses new tactics and different weapons built into the Wall to fight the monsters. William and Tovar have a clever matador move when face to face with a creature. Any of William’s trick shots are also CGI, so no archer actually did that.
The weakest part of the movie is the lead performance. William is supposed to be Irish but Damon sounds like Ben Kingsley doing The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Remember, Kingsley was intentionally monotone as was revealed to be a joke. There’s no irony for Damon.
He doesn’t serve much narrative purpose either. William is a good archer I suppose, but the story could have just as easily focused on a Chinese archer making his way up the ranks to earn Commander Lin’s respect. Personally, I would have flocked to see an epic battle movie with all Asian actors, but perhaps American audiences would not.
There is enough inventive action and old school military feel to make The Great Wall an experiment worth seeing. It is certainly a showcase for Jing and other Chinese actors playing her soldiers. The visual effects bring a lot of the spectacle down and the story could have been more directly about the might of the army on the Great Wall of China.