China’s largest and most iconic landmark never felt so diminutively small as it does in Yimou Zhang’s English-language debut “The Great Wall.”
Known for his bold and colorful style paired with intricate character-driven storytelling, the director of international hits like 2002’s “Hero” and 2004’s “House of Flying Daggers” should have been the perfect choice to bring top-notch Asian cinema to American markets.
But for a film with distinct technical wizardry and an Oscar nominated Hollywood actor leading the way, “The Great Wall” is paper thin on plot and exceedingly bland overall.
International box office draw Matt Damon stars as William, a European trader seeking legendary gunpowder during unspecified medieval times. When he and his colleague Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are captured by Chinese forces blockading a massive wall, the pair are thrust into an epic, centuries-long war to protect the nation from giant lizards that ravage the countryside every 60 years.
Damon seems to understand just how absurd and misguided the film’s plot is and acts accordingly as a man taking a large paycheck to sell his star power for foreign and domestic markets. While there really isn’t much there on the page for him to work with, it doesn’t feel like Damon attacks the part with the same gusto that audiences are used to seeing, save for one or two early moments with Pascal’s Tovar.
“Game of Thrones” star Pascal brings a largely believable persona as Tovar, the brooding, dry-witted ally longing to acquire mythical gunpowder for financial gain. Even with a character painted on the page with the broadest of strokes, Pascal seems to revive Tovar with a sly charm that stands out compared to all the blandness offered by the co-stars around him.
Veteran character actor Willem Dafoe simply has no real place in “The Great Wall” as his Ballard is almost completely inconsequential to the plot from start to finish. It feels as if heavy editing removed most of Dafoe’s scenes to make the movie’s running time more palatable at 90 minutes than the usual two-hour affair.
The villains of the film, gigantic computer-generated lizards that crawl and slink en masse across the screen like hordes of rats, are largely wasted as cannon fodder for Zhang’s grandiose battle sequences that feel like lesser homages to Peter Jackson’s iconic Battle of Helm’s Deep in “The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers.”
For all its shortcomings, “The Great Wall” kicks off with a pretty spectacular opening 20-25 minute sequence that finds William and Tovar on the run from bandits and concludes with what ends up being the film’s largest (and best) battle as the Chinese army fends off the first wave of invading lizards. It’s a promise for the next hour that Zhang simply can’t live up to.
The film slogs along for the next 45 minutes with a thin, forced romance angle between William and a female general and exceeding amounts of strategic minutia that drain all the life-force out of “The Great Wall.” When the film finally picks back up again, viewers can no longer buy in to the over-the-top fantasy premise and disengage from the theatricality involved. This makes the movie’s simplistic conclusion feel like an afterthought.
Since many more Hollywood-China collaborations are on the way, studios both at home and abroad have to be at least somewhat disappointed with the lackluster “The Great Wall,” a movie so perfectly average that audiences often leave theaters simply shrugging their shoulders.
What ultimately appears on screen is a disjointed, haphazard mess of a film. Seeing the movie in theaters, waiting to rent it or simply skipping the whole thing altogether all seem like completely reasonable options which, like “The Great Wall,” is just okay.