"I fought for greed and gods, this is the first war I've seen worth fighting."
The world is a funny place is it not? One day you can be making intimate and poignant masterpieces of world cinema like ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ that are so provocative and powerful that they are banned in their own country of origin while being hailed as a masterpiece across the globe. Then the next day you can be making movies about giant monsters attacking the Great Wall of China, which contrary to what history tells us was actually built to keep said giant monsters out. Funny world right?
In the time of the Song dynasty during the reign of the Renzong Emperor, a group of mercenaries from Europe searching for Black Powder, only to arrive at the legendary Great Wall of China where they find an army fighting an endless battle against invading monsters. Faced with an astonishing task, the mercenaries must choose whether or not they will stand with honour and join the fight.
Despite its ludicrous premise ‘The Great Wall’ is a landmark film for the international movie industry. Not only is it the most expensive Chinese production ever but it also has the largest international release for a Chinese production as well. So the success of ‘The Great Wall’ could determine the future of international movie as we know it. But as for quality, well I can safely say that China have succeeded in showing that they can make a middle of the road, appropriately dumb, serviceable yet ultimately forgettable blockbuster just as well as modern Hollywood can.
For all the controversy that Matt Damon’s casting caused there really is not that much to his character to make such an outcry worth it. His character feels more like a blank slate that ultimately does very little in the way of development, distinguishing characteristics or empathetic qualities. None of this is helped by the fact that this could be the worst performance I have ever seen Damon give. In a weird way that is a complement to his career as a whole that this is his worst role by such a wide margin, but Damon’s ever shifting accent and constant stone faced expression make it difficult to see his character as anything other than an entry point for American audiences.
Though Damon’s character came under fire for fitting into a white saviour narrative I honestly think such criticism is unjustified upon seeing the actual movie. While Damon serves as an entry point, from a narrative standpoint his character is taught to be a more honourable person through his encounters with the Chinese warriors. Not only that, but the supporting cast are given an appropriate amount of screen time as well. It does have the feel of an ensemble film rather than a mere star vehicle. While none of the arks really pay off or feel evocative in any way, I do have to give the movie credit for at least trying to give weight to its large and diverse cast.
But even Zhang Yimou best movies often use their visuals to convey emotion and mood than their story or characters. Masterpieces like ‘Hero’ and ‘House pf Flying Daggers’ have visual splendour that few films have ever matched and to a certain extent ‘The Great Wall’ feels reminiscent of those. Numerous shots are stunningly composed and coloured, giving them a vibrant and energetic feel. It is in these moments where the cinematography, production and costume design all align perfectly to create a picturesque scene. But whereas Yimou’s other movies possessed that quality for every single frame, ‘The Great Wall’ is highly inconsistent on a visual level. For every shot of brilliance there is a CGI car crash that just piles one poorly rendered effect on top of one another. The CGI in question is not awful, but there was never a single moment that I was convinced I was seeing anything other than CGI.
That leads me onto the action scenes. To echo what I said earlier Yimou knows how to orchestrate a good action scenes based on his previously mentioned past efforts. But within ‘The Great Wall’ each action scene, while perfectly serviceable, seems relatively flat and uninspired. They seem derivative of other, superior films of the genre, and are merely a shadow of what other directors have done in similar environments. From Peter Jackson to Ang Lee, I feel as if I’ve seen every variety of action scene here such as the huge battles or intricate swordplay staged better by another filmmaker.
On a tonal level the film does a decent job of blending Eastern and Western filmmaking sensibilities. In fact for the first half it works remarkably well, juggling its subtle character moments with its giant moments of spectacle, and due to a reduction of CGI for the first half it looks visually stunning for almost all of it. But as it charges head first into its second half it sacrifices that balancing act for focussing purely on the big set pieces which are hampered by the uninspired CGI and the pace takes a nose dive to a point where it feels like a slog to finish the movie.
Despite being very impressive in some respects, ‘The Great Wall’ eventually crumbles under its own weight, weak foundations and mismatched construction.