The Great Wall has been described as an ‘epic historical fiction action adventure monster film.’ In other words, it’s a mess.
First a little background. The Great Wall is a US-China production. It’s been directed by Zhang Yimou, one of China’s most renowned directors who has made films House of Flying Daggers and Raise the Red Lantern. Yimou’s films have won awards at all the major festivals – Cannes, Berlin, Venice. He directed the opening and closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing. The Great Wall is headlined by Oscar-winning actor Matt Damon and the supporting cast includes Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe. The writing team includes Oscar-nominee Tony Gilroy. It’s the most expensive film ever made in China – the budget is rumored to be 150 million dollars.
There is dollops of talent and money here but what you get onscreen is a banal, cliché-ridden, personality-free story about honorable men and women protecting the world against monsters with big teeth and green blood. These are the Taotie, symbols of greed derived from ancient Chinese folklore. Every 60 years, they descend from a mountain like locusts and consume everything in their path. The Wall is the last defense between them and us. Why do they only get hungry after 60 years? I can’t tell you and I suspect Yimou doesn’t know either.
Damon plays a mercenary who comes to China to steal gun powder. But noble Chinese warriors teach him about trust, honor and the value of selfless sacrifice. Admirably, Damon keeps a straight face while delivering leaden dialogue but at least he gets a character arc. Dafoe barely registers. He pops up in a few scenes and then, disappears. I suspect this film is what Manisha Koirala used to call a home production. That’s a film that an actor does does to run his home. The Chinese talent doesn’t’ fare better. Jing Tian who plays the commander of the Chinese troops gets the most screen time but her face is largely expression-free. Everyone looks grim and vaguely uninterested – like they were mentally making plans for dinner. You can see the Yimou touch in the sweeping panoramic shots and bursts of color – especially in the climax. But the rest of The Great Wall feels like a half hearted attempt to cater to the two biggest movie markets in the world. The film ends up serving neither. I’m going with two stars.