THE GREAT WALL (China | USA/12A/103mins)
Directed by Yimou Zhang. Starring Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Tian Jing, Andy Lau
THE PLOT:
Mercenaries William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) journeying to find gunpowder find themselves taken prisoner by The Nameless Order at the Great Wall of China, but before punishment can be dealt out, the Wall is attacked by Tao Tie; mythical monsters who attack every 60 years in an attempt to take over the world. William and Tovar find themselves confronted with a choice; fight or die.
THE VERDICT: Only released in Irish cinemas this week, ‘The Great Wall’ has already been the subject of controversy when Asian actress Constance Wu accused the movie of white washing, saying “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world”. Ouch. The fact of the matter is that ‘The Great Wall’ is almost entirely populated with Asian actors, is helmed by Chinese director Yimou Zhang, and is the largest and most ambitious film ever to be shot in China.
Matt Damon leads the show as William, a mercenary who fought for food as a child, and for money as an adult. Damon manages to give William a moral compass and, even though there is a distinct whiff of contractual obligation about the whole thing, and Damon’s accent is a mess, manages to make William a character that the audience can root for. Tian Jing plays Commander Lin, soldier for The Nameless Order and a woman of tenacity and grace. Lin has little to do other than bark orders and follows Damon’s but there are times when the pair manage to have at least a little chemistry together on screen. The rest of the cast features Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han and Junkai Wang.
Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay seems to have taken inspiration from the feat of engineering that is The Great Wall of China, and then thrown a dollop of fantasy on the top with the monstrous Tao Tie. The dialogue is not all that exciting, and there are attempts at buddy camaraderie between Damon and Pascal that comes and goes, but the ridiculous and over the top fantasy elements of the story are fun that doesn’t need to be thought about, and at least the romance between Damon and Jing is only hinted at, and not shoehorned in.
‘The Great Wal’l is director Yimou Zhang’s first film in the English language, but it is worth mentioning that at least half of the dialogue is in Mandarin. Zhang does well with the Mandarin portions of the film, as well as the pacing and making the set pieces as over the top and mostly impressive as possible, but the timing for some of the scenes in English, as well as the dodgy CGI in the film manage to bring ‘The Great Wall’ down from a daft actioner that’s a lot of fun, to something a lot less sophisticated. Oh, and hadn’t we moved past 3D on these sorts of actioners?
In all, ‘The Great Wal’l is daft, over the top and fun in places, but struggles with balancing the spark between English and Mandarin, as well as making the CGI scenes – of which there are many – look halfway decent or as though they belong in the same film as the beautifully shot live action sequences. Oh and as for Constance Wu’s thoughts on the film; it is true that most of the cast and crew are Asian, but it is still Matt Damon who ends up saving the day, so Wu’s statements are definitely justified.
RATING: 2/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    The Great Wall is China’s most expensive film yet. A historical fantasy epic, it was a big hit late last year in China. How it performs on the international stage is another matter, even with an international star like Matt Damon in it.

    European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are travelling through China during the period of the Song Dynasty. They’re in search of the famed black powder, which will come to be known as gunpowder. During their journey, they’re attacked by a green monster and take its severed arm to find out more about what’s out there. It’s at this point they approach the expansive Great Wall and are captured by Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) and soon-to-be Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing). Held captive, they soon discover why armies are fortifying themselves on the wall. Every 60 years, mysterious creatures called tao tei attack the wall and attempt to kill humans and take over China and possibly the world. Headed by their heavily-protected queen, they operate a hive mentality. The Great Wall of China is the last line of defence against them. William’s archery skills come into use against the tao tei, as he earns his respect among the Chinese warriors around him. But defending the Wall and the realm behind it will prove challenging for all concerned…

    Enjoyable Chinese fantasy or a mis-judged, bloated folly? The Great Wall is a bit of both, but not enough of either. If anything, it feels distinctly ordinary and average. That’s somewhat surprising considering the pedigree involved. Zhang Yimou is one of China’s most respected directors. His early career focused on quiet character portraits like Raise The Red Lantern with the brilliant actress Gong Li. His later career has focused more on martial arts and wire-fu epics like House Of The Flying Daggers. With The Great Wall, Yimou is obviously aspiring to the latter and its wonderful sense of place, time and character, but he loses the run of himself in an excess of CGI. It may be China’s most expensive production so far, but even the CGI beasties look ropey at times. They might be less so in 3D, but the shortcomings of the visual effects are more obvious on a regular screen. Characters are thinly sketched too, with only one Chinese character (Lin Mae) given three dimensions.

    Claims of whitewashing in the cast are arguably unfounded though. The script called for European outsiders, who act more in a support capacity to the heroic Chinese warriors. The film certainly makes that point and shows the resourcefulness of these well-trained armies. It could also be argued that casting Damon was a move to bring the film to a wider international audience. Some of these Chinese fantasy films can often be impenetrable and incoherent to a western audience, but The Great Wall is quite accessible. It’s rousing, good-humoured and definitely colourful. The colours of the film pop off the screen, whether it’s in the colour-coded armies or in the tao tei themselves. Yimou stages some spectacular, large-scale scenes of destruction viewed from hot air balloons or a refracted light sequence in a tower. The visual imagination of the film is its strongest point, even among the more obvious CGI elements. The Great Wall is flawed and lacks the more considered tone of Yimou’s previous films, but it’s still an entertaining Saturday afternoon popcorn film. ***