Zhang Yimou, the celebrated Chinese auteur behind Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, has never made bad looking films. But how about just a bad film? That appears to be the case if you were to read a smattering of international reviews for The Great Wall, the director’s first English language production. Kervyn, Noelle, Craig, and Tracy all went to check out the film earlier in the week to decide for themselves if this was case of a Not-So-Great Wall or not. And since we’re a democratic sort around here, it was decided they would all chip in to the review with their thoughts. Check them out below.
The Great Wall sees Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal as a pair of world weary 10th century mercenaries who go looking for the fabled explosive black powder of China only to get caught up in a monstrous battle. Literally. Ancient scaly beasts have been scratching and snarling at the Great Wall of China in a bid to turn citizens of the Middle Kingdom into snacks. These monsters are luckily the regulated sort and only attack every 60 years, giving the locals time to don ornate Crayola colour coordinated armour and come up with what appears to be the most elaborate looking and equally inefficient way of repelling these beasts (Bombs? Who needs ’em! I would rather go bungee spear-fishing off a wall into a maelstrom of teeth and death). Luckily, they now have Matt Damon and his bow to show them how monster slayin’ is really done! F#$& yeah!
Well, not so much, actually. Yimou has not lost his knack for opulent pageantry one bit and keeps everything looking gorgeous, especially in IMAX. But divorced of the slower, more poetic approach to action of his previous films, in favour of Hollywood styled rah-rah (pardon the pun) hero moments, things tend to lean heavily into the area of silliness. While Pascal appears to be having fun with the role, and Willem Dafoe pops up for a brief bout of loopiness, Damon sleepwalks through most of his material. On the Chinese side of the actor equation, Jing Tian also plays her role too subdued to properly invite audience buy-in but at least the always great Andy Lau makes up for that with a fun showing. The script, which has a couple of face-slappers, leaves the rest of the all-Asian cast as non-entitities. At least they get to speak in their native Mandarin with the assistance of subtitles.
BUT! As innately silly as it all it is, there’s at least some fun to be had with this creature feature. There’s some genuinely witty banter sprinkled throughout the script, and some of the action beats are convincingly thrilling thanks to a devil-be-damned approach that just tosses all sense of subtlety, logic and occasionally even a respect for the laws of physics out of the window. This is a movie that from the onset declares itself to be nothing more than a bit of a mythical yarn, and I can respect that.
- Score: 6/10
Pretty. Stupid. That’s my two-word take on The Great Wall.
The film is visually striking, with a sumptuous production design that makes 3D IMAX the optimal way to appreciate the spectacle. The film also includes some unquestionably cool moments that just ooze style.
But – and there are some big “buts” coming here – The Great Wall suffers from extremely lazy writing. It feels like a bad blockbuster video game, right down to a final three-stage boss battle. The Great Wall is pretty much Starship Troopers or Gears of War set in Dynastic China. Maybe high concept is your thing. Maybe that’s enough for you when it comes to movie entertainment. If not, you’ll probably find yourself either rolling your eyes at a trope you’ve seen a hundred times before, or chanting “Why? Why? Why?” over some truly nonsensical character decisions.
My biggest gripe though is that The Great Wall suffers from full-blown White Man Saviour syndrome. I was hoping that the movie’s trailer was simply misjudged marketing. But nope. While the Chinese characters stand around as 12th Century Power Rangers (who don’t even do much fighting, to be honest), Matt Damon’s Marty Stu sweeps in, flings about solutions, and accomplishes things singlehandedly that an entire elite Secret Warrior Order can’t. Hell, he even looks like Jesus Christ for a third of the film, and references returning when everyone else thought he was dead. Really, in this day and age, it’s cringe-worthy and builds bad feeling towards the movie.
- Score: 5/10
You will struggle to find a movie that is better looking than Great Wall. From the impeccable production design, bright colour and cinematography, rapturous choreography, scintillating battle scenes and sumptuous special effects, Great Wall certainly looks beautiful. What it offers up in visual spectacle though, it unfortunately loses in character development.
Great Wall serves up a serviceable story of renegade warriors who join up forces with a Chinese army in the midst of the battle for the world against the mysterious creatures called tao tei. It’s predictable and filled with a lot of silly moments that require you to suspend your belief… but it’s equally fun as well. While the gaping plot holes and poorly drawn leads detract from the immersion of the whole experience, it still offers up good entertainment.
Admittedly my expectations for the film were low going into the movie, but it certainly turned out better than expected. It’s far from being a great movie, but as a visual feast, it offers up solid popcorn entertainment.
- Score: 6/10
My experience with The Great Wall was slightly different than our other reviewers. The Cape Town and Durban screenings went off without a hitch, but unfortunately for Joburg we lost the subtitles halfway through. Not sure what happened, but seeing as a great deal of the dialogue isn’t in English, I lost the plot. Literally. I had no idea what was going on. So in light of having to watch the movie without any clue what the majority of the characters were saying, here’s my review sans dialogue, in emoji form: