From the trailers and marketing, The Great Wall had plenty of potential to go horribly wrong.
With Hollywood’s track record of handling Chinese and Japanese settings in action blockbusters, especially with an American leading man, plus the cringe-worthy tag-line of “1700 years to build. 5500 miles long. What were they trying to keep out?” this wasn’t a movie that I was queuing up to see on opening night, but is it actually that bad?
Not at all.
The Great Wall is probably one of the most unique movies that I’ve seen in recent memory, a strange hybrid of Chinese Fantasy and Hollywood production that will likely make it feel like a foreign film to 100% of moviegoers around the world, but all the potentially problematic elements are surprisingly well handled by director Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers).
A blend of military fantasy, monster movie and even a heist sub-plot, The Great Wall still manages to be very well paced. While more indulgent directors could easily run over 3 hours with the sheer scope of the epic fantasy story, the modest running time of 1 hour 43 minutes perfectly delivers the plot with plenty of character moments throughout.
Initially I found Matt Damon’s accent distracting, as he sounds almost exactly like Brendan Gleeson, but ultimately having the foreigners (Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe) not fit into the over-done Queen’s English (or worse, modern American) accents of other fantasy settings was probably for the best.
Tian Jing is fantastic in her portrayal of the bad-ass leader of the all-female Crane corps, the blue armoured soldiers in the brilliantly colour-coded and impressively huge army on the wall. Pedro Pascal has many of the funniest moments of the movie, Lu Han manages to be one of the most empathetic characters despite not speaking a word of English and Andy Lau’s Strategist Wang has the gravitas required to assist Tian Jing in preventing Damon from slipping into the uncomfortable role of white saviour.
A European protagonist in an Asian military blockbuster is usually cause for alarm, but in this case the cynic in me can acknowledge that the addition of Damon, Pascal and Dafoe to the mix allows for a wider global release and undoubtedly a bigger budget, without sacrificing the movie to complete white-washing. In this case, it is the Chinese military that has plenty to teach the foreign interlopers about not only trust and discipline, but also technology and explosions.
While nothing about The Great Wall movie is historically accurate, the opening text goes some way toward defusing the concerns of the tag line by framing the movie as the telling of a legend rather than the real purpose of the Great Wall of China and the action sequences are definitely entertaining and dramatic in their ridiculousness.
The one trope that this movie doesn’t avoid is more commonly seen in sci-fi movies, with the only way to stop the monsters being to take out the Queen, but ultimately the plot is executed well enough for this to be an acceptable usage rather than a lazy mistake.
Big action, impressive visuals, a tight plot with character development and comedic moments and a welcome lack of forced romance all come together to make The Great Wall an enjoyable spectacle. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether it’s too different (or too poorly marketed) to be successful at the Box Office.