Controversy is something that is becoming more and more normalized in today’s society and we tend to forget about a scandal right when another one comes along. Whether these scandals be political, social, etc., we’re exposed in a way unlike ever before. Right when the trailer for “The Great Wall” dropped, Universal Pictures found themselves surrounded by a heap of controversy. Despite being a Chinese-American co-production, the lead actor in “The Great Wall” is none other than Matt Damon, someone who is very much so not Chinese. It’s difficult to criticize the context of a character in a film until you see it, but controversy still arose. Director Zhang Yimou had to step in and defend the film from a Chinese perspective, as Legendary Pictures had to from an economical standpoint of producing a Chinese-American film. The real question now is not only whether box-office receipts will be hurt by the controversy, but also whether or not Damon’s presence even helps the film thematically?
No, it doesn’t.
For the plot, we follow William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are European ex-mercenaries who have traveled to China to search for black powder, aka gunpowder. After being captured by Chinese troops, they are taken as prisoners to the Great Wall of China, where they witness a massive attack of reptilian beasts upon the troops situated on the wall. After the initial attack, William begins work on helping the troops in any way he can to defeat these creatures with the help of Commander Jin (Jing Tian) and the various other factions of this massive army.
Now, I defended “The Great Wall” for the reason stated above on character context, but also given the film’s Chinese roots, as well as its director, Zhang Yimou. Zhang is perhaps the greatest living Chinese director today (I consider Ang Lee Taiwanese, given his own self-identification), and to see this king of spectacle being handed a $150 million blockbuster is an exciting endeavor. Still, I took Damon’s presence with a grain of salt, given my own views, but I always give films, no matter how controversial, a chance to impress me before making judgments. While a great deal of “The Great Wall” impressed me, Damon did not.
Damon’s performance from the start is really weird. He dons a strange accent that was inconsistent as hell and hard to place. Often times he would overact at some of the smallest of interactions, which created some often unintentional humor. Yet, the biggest downfall with Damon in this film is that he’s boring; without any backstory, it’s hard to really get a sense as to why we’re supposed to care about this character with no relevance to the story at hand. Not only is her boring, he is completely unnecessary, with no real relevance to the rest of the story. While on one hand, this saves the film from solely being a white savior piece, but it also renders the character we’re supposed to identify with most useless. This also goes for Pascal and Dafoe in the film, who hold even less relevance, even if their performances are better than Damon’s.
From this big blow, everything in “The Great Wall” is uphill for the most part. While the film touts this massive battle on the Great Wall as the ultimate battle for humanity, this battle actually occurs in the first act of the film, setting the bar high for action early on. These are the sequences that fans of Zhang want to see most, and they aren’t disappointing here. Having seen the film in full IMAX 3D, this film has some of the best-shot action sequences in the past year, even if the characters involved with them are a bit weak. These sequences are of true spectacle, something Zhang has always done wonderfully, but he also finds new and inventive ways to show off this spectacle. Being the darkest action film Zhang has ever taken on, he still maintains his typical Zhang-ness even without flashy, amazing colors, which do make an appearance in the third act of the film.
Had “The Great Wall” removed the storyline about the European traders and focused on Jing’s Commander Jin and her journey to defeat the creatures, this film would’ve been so much better than it is. Granted, it’s hard to complain about these things, knowing that without a bankable Hollywood star like Damon, this film would’ve never been able to pull $150 million from a secondary American production company.
There still are a few smaller problems with “The Great Wall” though, mostly regarding its pace. At only 103 minutes, “The Great Wall” is fairly short for a blockbuster like itself. “The Great Wall” doesn’t just happen to be a short film, however, it’s a short film that very obviously was a much longer film at one point. There are subplots almost completely thrown away, strange changes in pacing with no warning, and a third act so rushed, you’re almost shocked at how quickly they breeze through it. Given that “A Cure for Wellness” could get away being 146 minutes long, I’m not particularly sure why “The Great Wall” couldn’t either.
As for the 3D in the film, there is no other way to see this film other than in full IMAX 3D. This is a film of scale and spectacle, but also that Chinese 3D, which many audiences don’t know how that’s applied. As seen in “The Mermaid” last year, Chinese filmmakers have no issue throwing objects at the screen for 3D effect, to which Zhang does to a great degree here. Unlike “The Mermaid,” Zhang melds this with the scale and size of the film to create one of the more inspiring uses of 3D in recent memory.
“The Great Wall” is a strange film to write about, given how it does so many things so very well, but also haphazardly forces a storyline into the film that very obviously did not ask to be a part of it. In a perfect world, Zhang would’ve still been able to make a film of this scale and budget with the Chinese characters in the film that are far more interesting than Damon’s character. Even less developed, I found myself drawn to Jing more than anyone, and sorely wish for a movie focusing on her instead. You don’t even have to bring in an argument of whitewashing to see how poorly cast Damon is here, and how sorely irrelevant his storyline his. Still, major thematic issues aside, Zhang has still crafted a gorgeous, exciting film that could use with 30 more minutes, and the removal of a movie star.
Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, and Andy Lau.
Runtime: 103 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence.
Also available in RealD 3D and IMAX 3D.
Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures present, a Legendary Pictures/Atlas Entertainment production, a film by Zhang Yimou, “The Great Wall”