When the first posters and trailers for The Great Wall hit sometime last year, it seemed like yet another in a recent string of sad, misguided pseudo historical epics that harkened back to 50's Hollywood in outdated ways. It seemed this way due to the fact that none of the marketing materials clearly defined just what the film was, so it was left to us to speculate; is it about Matt Damon helping a bunch of "we need a white hero" Chinese people build the historical wall, perhaps? Or, based on a quick glimpse in the trailer hinting that the warriors might be fighting creatures in the film, maybe it's a historical fiction where Boston's Own Matty Damon teaches the primitive yet noble people of China to fight off dragon...things? Is it about Matt "Don't Say Team America" Damon's big ol' face hovering over the Great Wall, ready to protect it with his mighty chin, as the poster seemed to say? There were no easy answers. All along, however, there were hints to the observant film nerd that this may be a cooler movie than any of those bland ads promised. The fact that frequent Universal Studios collaborators Legendary were behind the production (the first co-production effort with China through their Legendary East production house, as it turns out) promised much, given that they've been behind many excellent genre films in the last few decades. And the fact that the director of the film was Yimou Zhang, the filmmaker who made such extravagantly beautiful action films in his native China as Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Based on those faint promises of greatness alone, I chose to see the film. It not only didn't disappoint, but surpassed my expectations. The Great Wall is friggin'...well, great.
Far from being some prestigious historical epic, The Great Wall is a straight up monster attack film, a siege movie pitched somewhere between Ghosts of Mars and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Two mercenaries, William (Matt “Bourne To Be Wild" Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are besieged on all sides on their trek through the East, hunting for a rumored black powder weapon that could bring them great fortune. One of their attackers is big, green, and has a giant clawed hand that William chops off before it falls to its death, and it's this evidence of their victory (as well as the creature's existence) that saves their lives when they literally run into the Great Wall of China. The gigantic army stationed there is known as the Nameless Order, a color coded fighting force who have sworn to keep the secrets of the Wall by living there and fighting monstrous, insectoid creatures known as the Taotie, who attack every 60 years. A skilled archer, William is torn between fleeing with the black powder along with Tovar and another mercenary trapped at the Wall (Willem Dafoe), or staying and helping Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and her army fight the horde, who creep ever closer to breaching the wall and overtaking the world.
The most surprising and invigorating element of The Great Wall is its world building, presenting an alternate history that gleefully sacrifices historical accuracy for fun. Much like fellow wonderful monster fight fest Pacific Rim, the Nameless Order fight the Taotie horde in flashy outfits with crazy cool weapons. Each infantry unit has a function, up to and including an all-female unit who tie ropes to themselves, grab spears and dive off the wall to lance the monsters right in the face. There's everything from archers to sword fighters to giant blades sticking out of the wall to huge flaming cannonball catapults. If this film came out 30 years ago and I was 5, I'd be begging my parents to be buying me the Great Wall Action Playset, complete with crazy weapons that weren't in the movie but plausibly could have been. That's how crazy awesome the Nameless Order is. As for the Taotie, at first glance they're a hive mind insect monster race, a sci-fi action staple since James Cameron's Aliens, complete with a leader Queen who must be defeated at all costs. That being said, they're visually unique and cool, being a cross between a lizard, a dinosaur and a insect, and having ornate patterns tattooed on their bodies, hinting that their origin may be mystical in nature (of course, the film also implies they could be aliens as well). With all these colorful (literally!) characters filling the screen, there's no shortage of eye candy.
Fortunately, director Zhang is such a specialist at eye candy he could take a scene set in a crumbling tower and make it gorgeous by washing it in rainbow stained glass reflections. In fact, he does exactly that and more. The Great Wall may not be a historical epic, but it's certainly staged like one, with dozens of armored extras filling a shot to the brim, kept perfectly framed thanks to cinematographers Stuart Dryburgh and Xiaoding Zhao. Zhang's penchant for balletic yet brutal action remains intact, and he's at the top of his game here, having arrows flying and creatures lunging and soldiers diving all within the same shot. He also gives Damon's Man With No Name/Yojimbo character the impressive skills he needs to show, as William flies around doing crazy trick shots with his bow and arrow, Zhang shooting each with style and grace. Adding to the battle scenes is a sense of pageantry, nobility and tradition, as the camera flies over giant groups of drums and drummers as they signal the oncoming monsters. While Zhang has made films concerning giant armies before, this is his first creature feature, and the fun he's having with it radiates off the screen.
The Great Wall's main purpose is being a fun, B-movie adventure romp, and as such it lacks any sort of depth. The characters are paper thin; it's possible that Pedro Pascal's character name is never uttered on screen once, and anyone past the featured six main characters is completely anonymous and interchangeable. The performances are good, or at least good enough to hold the screen until the next battle sequence. Damon's Celtic accent is, yes, supremely inconsistent, but he's too good an actor to not sell his character's inner conflict, well-worn as it may be. Pascal is witty and fun, and Dafoe is reliably shady. Infernal Affairs' Andy Lau is a nice addition, though he really just shows up for a paycheck. The breakout character is Tian Jing's Commander Mae, who follows in the footsteps of Rinko Kikuchi's Mako and Emily Blunt's Rita as an action hero who's also her own woman. The script (by a whole jumble of writers, never a great sign...though at least the Bourne movies' Tony Gilroy and World War Z’s Max Brooks are involved) makes up for its by-the-numbers nature by being as light and witty as possible, grounding the tone in an adventure film rather than being more pretentious or ponderous.
I'll fully admit that my love of The Great Wall has to do with the principle of inverse expectations; I expected to find it just okay, not a total delight. As such, it's entirely possible I'm overselling it. I've already read some other reviews calling the movie laughably bad and the like. It's a film that is so unabashedly a genre picture that it wears its monster heart on its sleeve, and that can certainly be a turn off to some. Yet it’s a lot of fun, and there’s an extra element of respect owed to a movie that is a collaborative effort between two massive cultures and societies in both reality and the film’s fiction. If you're the type who's ever built a Lego castle in a tableau of mid-attack by creatures, or watched Roger Corman flicks, or love old no-frills adventure films, then The Great Wall is totally friggin’ rad.