Going into The Great Wall, I had high, albeit, realistic expectations about what I was going to experience. I like far-eastern culture. I like mythology. I like gigantic reptilian monsters. Yimou Zhang (House of Flying Daggers, Hero) is a fantastic Director. At the same time, a movie about a war against said monsters is rarely Oscar worthy, but that’s ok. I don’t need to be taken on an emotional journey of self-discovery every time I go to the theater, but I do want to be entertained.
Matt Damon (The Martian) stars in a story (I almost put story in sarcastic quotation marks) about the only defense humanity has against a nearly unstoppable horde of monsters. Mercenaries, William and Tovar, Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones), are searching China for black powder when they are attacked by some kind of creature, after which they stumble upon The Great Wall of China, which is manned by an elite and color coded force known as The Nameless Order. To me, that IS a name, but I digress. From then on it’s one siege scene after another with short breaks to give the audience “story” (sorry, I couldn’t stop myself this time).
The Good news.
The things The Great Wall does well, it does very well. It truly is a fantastical film. The visuals are stunning, the weapons and method of fighting are refreshingly creative and exciting to watch, and the costume design is brilliant. Up until this very moment, I don’t think I’ve ever commented on costume design before, but the armors are magnificent in both color and construction. If I was rich they’d be the type of movie prop I’d want to purchase to decorate my home. It’s also no surprise that Yimou Zhang does a wonderful job directing such creative battle scenes.
Now for the bad news.
This film contains neither a story nor developed characters. In 104 minutes, all we’re given as far as a story is concerned, is the monsters either arrived on or were released from a mountain by a meteor, as punishment for man’s greed, and if they breach the wall and get to the capital, the entire world is doomed. Other than that, it feels like nothing but one long battle. This isn’t helped by the fact that every main character can be described in a single sentence. William is a mercenary with a hard past but is truly a hero inside. Tovar is the friend who urges the protagonist to stick to the plan and not get wrapped up in heroics. Ballard, Willem Defoe (The Boondock Saints), is the familiar face in a foreign land who is obviously untrustworthy. Peng Yong is a fool and a coward but is braver at heart than anyone realizes. Commander Lin, Tian Jing (Police Story: Lockdown), is a female soldier raised as a warrior who values honor and trust above all else. And that’s it. No important backstories, no overcoming inner demons or personality flaws, just one-dimensional characters going through the motions.
I would suggest Legendary allow Yimou Zhang to write and produce in addition to direct if they want the most out of a cast with this much talent.