I’m just gonna go ahead and leave a blank space here so that you, dear reader, can insert your own Trump wall joke.
There you go, enjoy.
So, The Great Wall’s initial introduction to the world wasn’t the kind that inspires much faith in the end product. The focus on Matt Damon’s character in many of the trailers had people rolling their eyes and groaning at the thought of China being the latest country to get the “white savior” treatment a la Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, To Kill a Mockingbrid, Avatar…I could go, but I won’t. Point is, it’s a bit of a well-worn and increasingly archaic trope, and its seeming presence in The Great Wall sparked an immediate backlash.
Thankfully, The Great Wall doesn’t really fit that mold by any means, and is in fact more of a ringing endorsement of the strength and unity of Chinese military might and the shedding of individualism more than anything else. Damon’s character William, an ambiguously European mercenary type whose initial interest in China is solely for their gunpowder and advanced weapons, is very quickly replaced by awe and reverence for the sheer (and apparently vibrantly colorful) might of the Chinese military as the battle weird monster dog things with often ridiculous, over-the-top tactics with insanely regimented zeal and precision. The Great Wall’s balancing of William’s involvement with that of General Lin’s (Tian) was a refreshing surprise that had a pleasingly similar dynamic to Max and Furiosa in Fury Road. The story thus is ultimately less “Matt Damon saves China”, as was so suggested, but rather “Matt Damon is an important, but nevertheless single part in a greater whole of saving China.” I know, its not as pithy, but it is what it is.
Of course, there are plenty of other appealing elements to The Great Wall than just thematic content. As a fantasy epic, grand scale is something of a given, and The Great Wall does not skimp there, especially in the aesthetics. There is some genuinely beautiful and breath taking set design on display, not to mention costume design that’s so ridiculous and over-the-top that it ends up working to anime-like levels of absurd goodness. The bright, and colorful armor of the armies of the Nameless Order is so deliberately bright and intricate that one can’t help feel like the whole thing is just cosplay fodder, but I can’t complain too much when its cosplay fodder that’s delivered with such style. Watching the cast in action in those ridiculous suits of armor in action is not unlike some kind of amazing, high- production value Dynasty Warriors fan film, and it is glorious.
Of course, The Great Wall’s epic trappings are often accompanied by suitably epic action set pieces, which are generally reliably entertaining, and oftentimes more than a little silly in exactly right kind of way. There are some nice sequences and moments that sizzle with a certain creative flair and style. Some of the early action sequences in particular have some really cool moments, the kind that stick with you even after you’ve left the theatre. That said, the film’s antagonists, the Taotie, aren’t exactly show-stoppers as far as movie monsters go: while their design is distinctive enough, the execution tends to be kind of unimaginative, and they end up feeling very much like a hollow obstacle to be overcome…which they are, for the record. But again, given the rest of the film’s sense of style, I would have hoped that it could have been disguised well in the grand scheme of the film’s plot and story. And it has to be said that as much as I just heaped praise on the action scenes, The Great Wall’s most impressive moments are often near its conclusion and it’s beginning. In the middle, The Great Walls’ action scenes don’t quite carry the same momentum and slip pretty easily into being a bit of a blur.
Given my talking up of The Great Wall’s epic silliness, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume it falls down in the story department, but as it turns out, The Great Wall is surprisingly robust in that regard. Now granted, its not exactly anything spectacular, your typical fantasy fare really, but given how ridiculously threadbare some epics can end up being on this front, it was pleasantly surprising that The Great Wall was able to balance out these elements well with its crazy action. Every character brims with just the right amount of personality, and each in turn feels well realised for their place in the narrative. Every character gets his or her moments, and everyone has some kind of arc, making The Great Wall surprisingly satisfying from a character perspective and pretty easy to get invested in. I was even still invested in spite of that fact that though its got some strong character work and a decent story, the plot of The Great Wall is definitely a bit spotty at times, with there being several scenes that feel like filler or padding or that lack in a really clear purpose.
Performance-wise, The Great Wall held up solidly as well, with all of the main cast putting in performances that were at worst, still pretty solid. The standout of the cast was by far was Jing Tian, who came across as very comfortable and charismatic in a lead action role. Matt Damon was, as expected, strong as well, although I wasn’t entirely convinced by his attempts at an accent. I said “ambiguously European” up top, but its probably closer to just being “ambiguously British”, since I couldn’t figure out if he was going for English, Irish, Welsh, or Scottish. Granted, it wasn’t so unconvincing to pull me out entirely, but was still noticeable. The supporting cast also delivered solid performances, although outside of Willem Dafoe and Pedro Pascal, it did feel like the rest of the cast was getting pushed to the side a little bit.
The Great Wall is a pleasantly surprising slice of charming, classic fantasy fare with a refreshing international flavor. Strong characters, performances, and a thematically refreshing story dovetail beautifully with delightfully over-the-top aesthetics and action sequences to deliver a experience that, while not always mind-blowing, is certainly worth the price of admission. The Great Wall doesn’t always hit its mark, but the times that it does outscores the times it doesn’t.