Much can be said about the big spectacle action movies of the 80’s and 90’s and while some movies in recent years have tried and failed to recreate these type of films (Independence Day Resurgence) The Great Wall succeeds in making a big dumb action film fun and memorable with some great diversity and explosive action scenes and choreography that deserves to be seen on screen. The decision to have a majority case of Chinese actors with 2 caucasian males with one male caucasian lead and one chinese woman lead pays off as the film flicks between subtitles and English speaking dialogue that mixes it up.
William (Matt Damon) and his Spanish friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are searching for the secret of black powder (gunpowder) and looking to trade when they are cornered by some Chinese warriors surprisingly at the base of the Great Wall. Their is a secret army called The Nameless Order who guard the wall from taotie, dragon like mythical creatures that attack once every 60 years to keep the emperor in check. Led by commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) the well choreographed army must kill the Queen to stop the multiplying swarm from reaching the capital city and taking over the world.
I’m not going to sugar coat it, the story is ridiculous, their are plot holes and if you sit and think about it too much, it doesn’t really make any sense. The good thing is that the top notch special effects, acting, choreography and cinematography are so astonishingly good, you completely forgive the shortcomings of the story. The movie starts out strong with a massive battle on the wall with choreographed female warriors in blue bungee jumping down the wall attacking the creatures, men with slinging blades slice the climbing taotie in the middle and although there are thousands of archers with bows, Matt Damon is apparently the only one who knows to aim for their eyes to actually kill them.
Visually this film looks way better than it should. The creatures are beautifully detailed and the sheer scale of how they had to multiply them is impressive for a movie of this budget. Not only the creatures but also the wall itself and the detail of the armies fighting is beautifully detailed in both long and close up shots. The bungee jumping women warriors are miltant and the choregraphy is careful and beautiful to watch. This also goes for the army and drummer shots are a joy to watch on screen and works hand in hand with the breathtaking cinematography.
Acting wise it was great to see alongside well known Matt Damon a cast of Chinese actors and the blend between english dialogue and chinese subtitles work together to please both audiences who will be watching this film. In particular Tian stands out as a strong female lead character who is both bold and vulnerable when she needs to be. Damon jumps in an out of some sort of Irish accent that doesn’t really work and ended up being a bit of a distraction. Also Willem Dafoe is in this movie without any real need to be there and barely an explanation of why his character really needs to be there.
Overall The Great Wall blew my expectations sky high, I was prepared to not enjoy this movie and moan and groan and surprisingly I did none of this. While the story was big and stupid, the action scenes, cinematography and choreography blew me away, the level of detail given to this was much better than it should be in a movie like this. Although Matt Damon is a bit plain in this film, the talented Tian more than makes up for it and keeping the relationship plutonic and respectful also won me over as well. The Great Wall may look ridiculous and pandering, but it instead excels at being a big dumb spectacle with some substance that makes it a film worth seeing (and worth seeing in 3D!)
Review by Alaisdair Leith