Zhang Yimou is a great filmmaker and Matt Damon is a fine actor, but neither have one of their finer moments with The Great Wall, which attempts to marry the historical epic genre with blockbuster effects and an alien invasion plot and, ultimately, provides diminishing returns.
In the film, Damon plays a thief named William who, along with his pal Tovar (Pedro Pascal), are searching for black powder in ancient China when they stumbled upon the titular structure, where a Chinese army is preparing to fend off attacks from a race of creatures who were sent down from the stars to punish the nation after a former ruler had been overcome with greed.
Damon is, unfortunately, saddled with one of the strangest accents I’ve come across in recent movies. He sounds vaguely Irish, although his sidekick appears to be a Spaniard, and his inflections seem off. His character quickly becomes infatuated with a female warrior named Lin Mae (Tian Jing), who takes over command after the region’s general is killed by one of the monsters, which are known as Tei Tao and apparently attack the wall every 60 years.
The film is often visually impressive, especially Yimou’s use of color as the various armies of Chinese warriors, cloaked in bright reds and blues, line up along the wall, bang the drums of war and leap off the wall – while harnessed in with ropes – to attack the Tei Tao. The monsters themselves, on the other hand, are merely digital blips that move en masse, much like the battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings films that have been mimicked to the point of exhaustion.
Randomly, I watched Yimou’s 1994 picture To Live this weekend and it was a reminder of how subtle and visually stunning the Chinese master’s movies tend to be. The Great Wall is more in line with some of his later wuxia films, such as House of Flying Daggers, only this latest entry is significantly sillier.
Ultimately, The Great Wall is a reminder that it’s difficult to adequately blend history with fantasy in a satisfying manner. Anybody remember Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, for example? Although the film has some strong camerawork, it’s ultimately in service of a film that is a misfire for both its talented director and star.