After releasing in December and making a big impact on the Chinese box office, Zhang Yimou’s monster epic finally reaches cinemas across the rest of the globe.
The film follows William (Matt Damon) and Pero (Pedro Pascal), two European mercenaries in search of Black Powder in Asia. After being captured they become embroiled in an age old battle on the Great Wall of China, the last line of defence holding back a horde of monstrous creatures from taking over.
I remember the teaser trailer for this film doing exactly what it’s labelled, teasing. It was fairly secretive and it immediately build up some intrigue within me. I’ve anticipated this film ever since despite the following trailers decreasing my level of intrigue. The good news when speaking about the trailers is the majority of the key action scenes showcased in the trailer, are actually from the opening act of the film. This then creates a rather unique thing in this day and age, a third act which you can view fresh, without having seen much or even any footage from, prior to your first viewing.
The story lacks any true depth, some would argue that a film of this nature doesn’t need added complexity to it’s narrative. That I could see myself agreeing with except for the fact that there are some interesting elements on the table here, that the script never truly develops. We have two lead characters that we don’t know a massive amount about, other than the fact that they steal and fight to live. The hollow writing revolving around these characters stops them from being even remotely compelling in any way, shape or form. What we get instead of true character development is just a basic and extremely predictable character arc which you can see coming from the opening five minutes of the film. What intrigued me the most was the different factions within this army taking a stand on top of the wall. They wore different colour armours to represent their faction and style of fighting. Some were ranged soldiers and other were soliders trained in close combat. It would have been nice to receive more information on the army itself and those within it. We get very short amounts of time with the leaders of each faction but we learn nothing about them.
The performances were a bit hit or miss, Matt Damon did just fine with the material he was given, a better script could’ve assisted him in moulding his character into someone more memorable. Pedro Pascal was one of the more memorable performances from the film due to his charisma and little moments of comic relief. I also liked Jing Tian’s performance as Lin Mae, she did well with conveying the power of her position within the army. Her relationship with Matt Damon’s William was one that was growing throughout the film but never became romantic which was a great choice, as this film did not need to fall into the realm of love. The one person who stood out like a sore thumb was Willem Dafoe’s Sir Ballard. The character just didn’t work for me and Dafoe’s performance felt a little too exaggerated in comparison to the rest of the cast.
What really works with this film and is by far it’s best asset, are the visuals. The imagery is vibrant and stunning, a large majority of the shots are bold and very attractive to witness. The costume designs are fantastic, the use of colour helps them stand out beautifully against the backdrop of The Great Wall of China itself. I can’t fault Zhang Yimou’s direction either from a visual standpoint, during the large scale battle sequences he throws the audience right into the middle of the action. Stuart Dryburgh and Zhao Xiaoding the cinematographers create a handful of unique shots to keep the action feeling fresh and exciting. Each battle through out the film has different elements to it which keep it different to the last, a skirmish that occurs amongst thick fog was a particular highlight.
At certain moments the action does become a little cheesy, there’s an overuse of slow motion shots which are effective during some of the action scenes but ruin some of the others. Also let me briefly speak about the CGI. The design of the monsters is to my surprise something that I ended up liking, they look like an enlarged, more primative version of a Komodo Dragon. They are all led by a Queen who’s design differs from the rest of the hoard. I was impressed from a creative stand point, the monsters didn’t look as generic as I thought they would. The one glaring issue is the fact that the CGI is not up to standard in some of the shots and sequences. This isn’t just the case for the monsters, there’s even shots of the Great Wall of China which don’t look real at all and they took me out of the film ever so slightly.
With all that being said, I still had a lot of fun watching The Great Wall, it kept me engaged from beginning to end. The film does lack character development and it does have predictable character arcs, but it makes up for it with vibrant visuals and action.
(3 Stars out of 5)
The Great Wall; Starring Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Jing Tian, Willem Dafoe and Andy Lau.
Directed by Zhang Yimou. Now showing in UK & US Cinemas.