The rise of China as a force to be reckoned with in today’s big-budget blockbuster film market cannot be underestimated. In the last few years alone, they’ve accounted for a sizeable portion of summer movie ticket sales, and have singlehandedly saved the grosses of more than one expensive stateside flop. Warcraft, Terminator: Genisys, hell, even xXx: The Return of Xander Cage made its money back in China. As a moviegoer, you’ve likely noticed it, too – the increasing prevalence of H. Brothers and Huahua production logos, third acts, and subplots that inexplicably take place in Hong Kong, and so on, all in the name of international box office synergy. The Great Wall is perhaps the greatest experiment in this venture: Instead of arbitrarily slapping Chinese elements into an American blockbuster to appease Chinese viewers, what if we threw Matt Damon in the middle of a Chinese high-fantasy epic? The results are decidedly mixed, though far from the disaster you might expect.
The film takes place in an alternative spin of Song Dynasty China, in which the Great Wall was built not to ward off raids and invasions, but to defend China against a swarm of gloopy green dragons called the Tao Tei. William (Damon) and Tovar (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal), two European mercenaries searching for gunpowder in China, run afoul of the beasts, are captured by the secret Chinese army defending the Wall, and are reluctantly recruited into the fight just as their 60-year siege on China begins.
The casting of Damon in the lead of this Chinese-made action film has ruffled quite a few feathers in the months leading up to the film’s release, and for no small reason. As expected, his character is a literal White Savior who, as all these stories go, shows up to become a better Chinese warrior than they could ever be and enjoy a chaste romance with the comely Commander Lin (Jing Tian). In a vacuum, Damon puts in a fine, cursory performance, despite a wonky accent that comes and goes — is William supposed to be Irish? — and handles the action beats decently enough.
Outside of the Damon factor, there’s surprisingly a lot to like about The Great Wall. Most notably, it’s the latest film from Hong Kong auteur Zhang Yimou (Hero), who pumps up the perfunctory script and cringeworthy dialogue with some stunning vistas and his signature command of color. In fact, the most eye-popping element of The Great Wall is the color-coordinated army protecting it: The Nameless Order, a secret society whose intricate, anime-style armor is divided into beautiful, stark designs arranged by color (red for archers, blue for pikewomen and so on). The costumes are simply gorgeous, and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (Yimou’s DP for House of Flying Daggers) amps up the color timing to make them pop like the page of a comic book. For Yimou’s colors alone, and one particularly striking set piece set in a kaleidoscopic stained-glass tower, The Great Wall may be worth the price of admission.
What’s more, the production design of the Wall itself is genuinely inventive, with anti-dragon defenses that get plenty of time to impress. There are stands for the soldiers to drop down from ropes, stab dragons, and flip back up to safety. Each faction gets fun toys to play with, from whistling arrows you fire at the dragons so you can hear them coming in the fog, to black powder bombs lit by active flints installed on the soldiers’ gauntlets. The over-the-top, stylized combat and wuxia acrobatics Yimou has perfected in his previous work have unexpectedly effective results when applied to an Army of Darkness-style monster siege movie. Hell, even Pascal gets a wonderfully cheesy moment where he steals a soldier’s red cape to – you guessed it – lure it matador-style into a trap. He’s a Spaniard, after all. (And don’t get me started on the monsters’ true weakness: magnets.)
While the action is the film’s saving grace, it’s the moments in between where The Great Wall really falters. Damon and Pascal try to make the most of the forced banter that’s meant to characterize them as laconic partners in crime, but none of it lands. Try as he might, Willem Dafoe fails to spice up the proceedings as a fellow European mercenary who lures them back into the search for gunpowder. The greater shame is that all this focus on the Western outsiders puts the more interesting Chinese leads on the back burner. The only member of the Nameless Order to get any life is Jing’s stalwart Commander Lin, while characters like Andy Lau’s Strategist Wang and Lu Han’s meek sidekick role get barely enough screen time to register. The logistics of the siege movie atmosphere are interesting, and the writers toy with some character development for the amoral mercenaries choosing to stay and fight with their Chinese hosts, but it’s just filler for soldiers slashing armies of CG beasties with weapons.
Set your expectations appropriately low and The Great Wall has plenty to offer. At times, it feels like a series of incredible costumes in search of a movie, and it’s a shame Yimou’s immense talents and mastery of image are wasted on pulpy high-fantasy fluff. The third act is notably clunky even by this film’s standards, with an ending so rushed and schizophrenic you genuinely lose track of major characters until the denouement. Still, if you can get past Damon’s Dances With Wolves routine and embrace some empty cheese, The Great Wall is too lovingly rendered from a visual standpoint to dismiss completely.