Movie Review: The Great Wall (Lights, Camera, Action!)

By Leo Epema 08.02.2017

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The Great Wall (UK Rating: 12A)

From director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) comes The Great Wall, with Matt Damon, from the well-known Bourne movie series. It is set to release in the UK on 17th February. The movie is special in that it focuses on the Western market by going through Hollywood, yet features a mixed cast made up of well-known Western and Chinese acting talent. Yimou has stated it is, "a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture," and that it, "is being made at tentpole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry." The question is, though, will it be, and if not, why? Would it be due to cultural differences, or something else?

The Great Wall starts out as expected: the main character, William Garin (Matt Damon), and a mercenary friend called Tovar (Pedro Pascal, Game of Thrones, Narcos), are on their way to steal gunpowder from the Chinese. On the way, they are attacked by a solitary beast who they manage to slay, although not before it drags two of their companions into nothingness. Seriously, they have no clue where they went - apparently, they chose the darkest place imaginable to set up camp, not to mention right next to a chasm. It's a bit unlikely and their dishevelled appearances perhaps more so. It seems as though they're wearing wigs.

In any case, without spoiling too much of the plot, they arrive at the Great Wall and get an impressive display of the archers' accuracy, magnificent armour, and multitude. Indeed, not long after the two are captured, they utter how impressive the Chinese army is. It's hard to argue with that, as they look magnificent. Each army regiment with different expertise wears armour with different colours. Archers are red, a kind of bungee-jumping lancers are blue, and another more elite section wears gold. The magnificently crafted and surprisingly realistic-looking armours are often put in contrast on the screen, and it's impressive. Adding to the visual splendour are various other vibrant things, like lanterns beaming a bright white in a beautiful scene.

However, despite how beautiful something may be, it doesn't add much to the emotion of the movie. Many scenes are half-baked, with one character's death happening very fast, seemingly within the span of thirty seconds. Another person cries for the deceased, but no clear relationship was portrayed between them beforehand, making it completely devoid of meaning, other than to stress that the invading beasts are "smarter than we thought." This idea is uttered at least three times at different points in the plot, engendering the urge to yell out: "No, they're not, you're just dim-witted."

The same problem of a lack of back-story or progression is seen right at the start, with Garin managing to gain the trust of all the Chinese soldiers and commanders simply by helping in a battle. Well, a fight is probably a better word for it. It's hard to see why they would trust Garin unconditionally just because he saved one relatively insignificant soldier's life, especially if one reason for saving him might be to increase his own chances of survival. They treat him like an equal, with none of the characters really distrusting him. In addition, they immediately trust Garin to fight in their ranks, when he hasn't exactly shown much of his ability.

As a result of this, there is no need for much dialogue; nobody tries to find out what Garin's motives are, what his view on life is, what he thinks of the Chinese there. It could have made for an intriguing discussion of cultural differences, or possibly simply an insight into the mind of somebody who has worked for many different countries. Surely, Garin must have seen plenty and have his own negative opinions that he would need to be rid of, or would need to adjust. This would be an excellent way for his opposing main character Lin Mei (Tian Jing, Special ID) to get meaningful dialogue. Instead, she gives a bland talk about trust being important, and for some reason Garin is actually affected by this. In what way shouldn't be spoiled, but it's predictable. That's part of the problem with The Great Wall: the story is too predictable; nothing tugs at the heart strings, and nothing of note happens. The fact that Lin Mei and Garin always work together so well prevents a lot of tension from finding its way into the battles.

Even the sidekick character Tovar is given very little screen time, and doesn't come to blows with any of the Chinese. If he did, it could have driven a wedge between the Chinese and Garin, but the most that happens is that Lin Mei scolds him. However, because of a convenient plot point, she immediately trusts him again. It's not unbelievable - it's actually fairly effective - but it's a lazy way of inserting drama without any story repercussions. A trusting nature towards foreigners should be a scarcity in a fictional land shut off from all contact with them, right?

The pacing also isn't great, and many unimportant scenes intended to break up the action take up much time without a clear reason. When something is captured in a cage, a large amount of time is spent on exposition about it. This is seemingly done to emphasise how dangerous the beasts are, but that was a given considering the first fifteen minutes gave viewers ample information to reach that conclusion. Some scenes that had the potential to be frantic and blood-pumping end up being short but sweet, with Garin and Tovar fighting three, perhaps four enemies. The choreography in those scenes is great - several different ways of dispatching the enemies are shown, each one satisfying and almost artistic. The 3D effects, what few there are, are actually powerful. That said, the mundane ending lacks a climactic battle and doesn't tie up any character relationships. In fact, Tovar is missing from much of the second half, and others are not mentioned again after serving their purpose.

As for allegations of racism, there is nothing of the sort. At no point does The Great Wall argue that it's okay to treat Asians unfairly compared to Caucasians. The main character's skin colour shouldn't matter. To be completely happy on the political correctness front, the lead would need to have backgrounds in all ethnicities. Garin is not shown as representative of Caucasians, nor is he the hero because of his skin colour, but because of his skill and co-operation with the wall defenders. It was a joint effort - nobody sat on the sidelines helpless or stupid.

Rated 5 out of 10


While everybody has different views of what a movie is supposed to do, and how well it should do it, there are so many plot points following each other up that there's no time left for character back-stories or development here in The Great Wall. The characters barely even have any rapport, and that's a problem. Many rapid-fire scenes add little except pacing problems. From one perspective, this movie is only average. On the other hand, if all that's desired is a popcorn film with decent special effects, fairly powerful sound design, and great acting and atmosphere, it's definitely more likeable than unlikeable. That would make it above average. Watch the movie to make up your own mind.

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