film Matt Damon

THE GREAT WALL Review: Dazzling Past Its Problems

Monday, February 20, 2017 Rob Samuelson

War is unruly and chaotic. Even the most meticulously planned battles are messes of bodies and debris and red-hot pieces of metal exploding in every direction. Films and prestige television shows of recent vintage have leaned into that chaos by depicting war on the micro level, following individuals in the middle of deadly scrums. The camera shakes with the force of a magnitude 8 earthquake, a smoky gray haze envelops the combatants, and seemingly every shot is cut every before any ordinary human’s eye can adjust to what is happening in the frame. War has become visually incomprehensible, which is a very different thing than saying that war is conceptually incomprehensible.

Photo credit: The Great Wall/Facebook



Yimou Zhang is a director who takes a different approach. His latest film, The Great Wall, is a visually accomplished affair that makes war seem like something one can wrap one’s mind around. It helps that his warriors, ancient Chinese battalions and Western traders stationed along the Great Wall of the film’s title, battle evil supernatural lizards rather than other people. The full weight of war’s lack of morality takes a back seat to the thrill of adventure, cutting edge production and character design detail, and the artistry of saturated colors in motion. It carries some real-world conceptual faults, but as a testament to a camera’s ability to capture light, it is hard to beat.


Irish (or is is Scottish?) mercenary William (Matt Damon) and Spaniard Tovar (Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones) are a pair of European traders who enter China at a time of great upheaval. They are chased by roving bandits along the Silk Road, which looks like an update of the brightly colored sets from the original Star Trek series. Hills have streaks of pinkish red rock flowing through them and the sand is a deliciously golden shade of tan -- it’s an otherworldly effect that sets the film in a place that feels just outside ordinary human experience. During a brief respite from the bandits’ attacks, they encounter a snarling beast at their campfire. William slices its arm off and it shrieks its way to the bottom of a crevasse to die a grisly death. But even though they vanquished one threat, they are left with an idea that they have entered a realm they are ill equipped to deal with. This is confirmed when the bandits chase them to the edge of the Great Wall, where they are taken prisoner by the troops, all of whom are very interested to learn how William was able to slice off the green fellow’s arm. There are a lot more of those green guys coming, and they aren’t happy.


The soldiers are led by Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), a woman whose battalion of blue-armored acrobats bungee jumps from the Wall, armed with long spears to beat back any attackers attempting to climb up the enormous structure. They are the first line of defense against the hordes of lizard dog things that look to take over China and the world. Alongside them are footmen clad in black, archers who don red armor, other fighters designated by yellow and purple uniforms, and one General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), who is clothed in a stunning, elaborately decorated suit of shining silver armor. When these various groups mobilize to fight the monsters, they are balletic in their movements, operating like distinct parts of a machine. Their bodies shift in unique ways so that one’s eye does not become lost amid the battle’s chaos, and Zhang alternates between extreme wide shots and closeups to show both the scale and horrifying details of fighting another living thing -- this contrast is what creates empathy in a viewer rather than constant, senses-dulling immersion.


For extended portions, Damon and Pascal play second fiddle. This is a good thing that leads to the film's best non-action sequences because it allows the characters with greater emotional attachments to this place to take center stage. When together in the grand meeting halls of the Chinese military, William and Tovar act as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the goings on as the leaders flail against this metaphysical threat that legend says attacks their people every 60 years (except they get stronger and exponentially smarter each time). They are occasionally at odds with the goals of the military, even plotting to steal gunpowder -- it becomes almost like a caper film at points. But The Great Wall is nevertheless a Universal Pictures release. No matter that it was funded in large part by Chinese investors and it has an acclaimed Chinese director at the helm, it should come as no surprise that this film, which was scripted by a slew of mostly white (and entirely not Chinese) screenwriters, winds up with the big American star coming to the rescue during the Chinese’s time of need. William is less compelling than the youthful woman trying to make something of herself in a society that is fighting for survival and he’s not as calmly (and awesomely) lethal as the general. But he’s an affable white guy, so he gets to play hero.


That is not right from a representational standpoint, but Zhang works around it as best he can. He concocts ways for Damon and Pascal to be guides for Western audiences to join them as they discover the world for the first time. Zhang wrings some humorous performances out of them as they wander the halls, bickering about how to get out of there with their lives and potential payday intact. And besides, when they are swinging their swords, slicing and dicing green amphibians while brightly colored soldiers swing and dart around them, one begins to forget about the film’s other problems in order to simply enjoy The Great Wall’s sumptuous pleasures.


Director: Yimou Zhang
Writers: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Starring: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Available in theaters now

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