'The Great Wall' Review

'The Great Wall' Review

By Robert Dougherty February 17, 2017 09:18AM EST
50% Review Score: 5 / 10
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Universal Pictures
The Great Wall (2017)

The Great Wall isn't just what the President called his own would-be wall literally hours before this film's premiere. The very first actual great wall was made by the Chinese, and is now reimagined as the only thing protecting the world from actual monsters beyond borders, although an American actor still gets to be the real savior of China.

Yet this wasn't intentionally written for the "Make America Great Again" demographic, since it was actually co-financed by Chinese film companies and made by famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou. But even if Yimou was trying to bring his own brand of high flying epic action to American blockbuster cinema, The Great Wall plays more like a carbon copy of it, perhaps right down to Matt Damon's controversial casting.

Damon's William and his partner Tovar are mercenaries searching for black powder in the Far East, only to find the Great Wall itself right before it faces a grave and terrible threat. The Nameless Order that guards the Wall have long prepared for attacks by a monstrous race called the Tao Tei, who will swarm every corner of China and the Earth without the Wall to hold them back. Although William's bow, arrow and a rather helpful magnet are soon seen as valuable assets, he, Tovar and a long imprisoned Westerner named Ballard are just waiting for their chance to steal black powder and leave, yet it naturally isn't that simple for William before too long.

When Damon was cast as the lead character in this supposedly Chinese-centric movie, it brought back memories of every infamous, panned and increasingly out of touch movie with a "white savior" saving a foreign land. While The Great Wall doesn't exactly do a lot to erase those memories, it really plays more like a paint-by-numbers extended episode of Game of Thrones than anything else.

The links are already strong enough with former Thrones co-star Pedro Pascal as Tovar, and with Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi providing the score. And of course, the concept of mystical and long dormant Earth-killing monsters heading towards a great wall is something that Thrones has drawn out for six years. Of course, the Great Wall isn't an arctic wall, the Tao Tei aren't ice zombies and Damon isn't quite Jon Snow, so not everything was ripped from the imagination of George R.R. Martin and HBO.

Nonetheless, The Great Wall is more influenced by Thrones and other American fantasy stories than by much of anything from China. What's more, although Damon, Pascal and Willem Dafoe are outnumbered by hundreds of Chinese actors and extras on the wall, only about three or four of them at most have any true impact on the story. And out of them, only Jing Tian's female commander gets to be right at the center with Damon.

There is another telling sign that The Great Wall is like most other American blockbusters, in that it usually works better when the action starts. Yimou does build up to it quite well early on, with the impressive and colorful divisions of armies gathering for battle, and more than enough leaping Tao Tei to take advantage of the 3D effects. The Tao Tei themselves also prove far smarter than the average monster horde, despite being the millionth unbeatable movie super army that can merely be brought down by the shortcut of killing their queen.

But in between the striking visuals and CGI wonders, there's also sillier stuff like the Tao Tei charging up the Wall like they were the World War Z zombies, Tovar pretty much morphing into a bullfighter at one point, and William throwing a shield like he was Captain America at another. And as stunning as the opening battle on the Wall is, the Tao Tei almost seem so overwhelming that their failure to overrun the Wall from the start makes little sense, especially since the tide mainly turns just from William and Tovar killing a few of them.

Until a more plausible explanation for that comes later, it seems to immediately fulfill all the white savior stereotypes feared from Damon’s casting. Yet the film’s biggest and most progressive method to try and keep The Great Wall from being a total white savior tale is Tian’s Commander Lin, whose high command is never once doubted due to gender even in this ancient setting. Of course, that may be more rare for an American big budget film to do than it would be elsewhere.

Tian and Pascal actually do much more to keep The Great Wall standing than Damon, whose problems actually go beyond the whitewashing controversy. Even with those issues, Damon is certainly more than capable of a great performance to answer all kinds of critics, but he doesn’t have such an answer here. In fact, an indescribable and puzzling accent, an almost comically low voice at times and a large first act beard sink Damon right from the start, and would have sunk him even if this story and character was set in Europe.

There is no ideal movie to have one of Damon’s worst performances in some time, but The Great Wall is pretty far from it nonetheless. In contrast, Pascal provides the film’s most life and humor by far that doesn’t come from action or CGI, while Tian suggests the kind of movie this could have been from another angle.

Since The Great Wall is a Chinese backed movie made by a Chinese legend, Universal Pictures and the American studio system may not be as much of a scapegoat as usual for such an outcome. Even so, trying to Americanize a Chinese fantasy epic surely doesn’t work as well as it might have the other way around.

For everything that is going on with walls at the moment, the real Great Wall still sets the standard for them around the world, no matter what it kept out centuries ago and no matter what else may try to copy it. However, The Great Wall is destined to set a far shorter and less memorable standard of its own.

Tags: The Great Wall (2017), Game of Thrones (2011), Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Tian Jing, Zhang Yimou
About the Author
Robert Dougherty is a longtime online freelance writer, who wrote reviews, articles & editorials on movies/TV for several years on the now defunct Yahoo Voices.
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