Movie Review: ‘The Great Wall’


Director: Zhang Yimou

Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Predro Pascal, Willen Dafoe, Andy Lau, Zhang Hanyu

Plot: A pair of Westerner soldiers survive the long, harsh journey to China in the hopes of obtaining the secret of gun powder. Upon reaching the Great Wall they learn that it is being besieged by a horde of reptilian demons.

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Review: Chinese director Zhang Yimou has long been associated with…what? Yes, I know that Matt Damon is in this. 

Ok, fine, let’s get it over with.

Matt Damon is a very noticeably white actor playing the lead in partly Chinese production set in medieval era China. The accusations is that he’s taken a role that should be played by a Chinese actor and it’s another case of whitewashing in modern cinema, which is a very awkward, very real issue. On one hand it does make sense for a fish out of water character to provide an entry point for audiences. On the other there is a trend of white characters taking roles that could have gone to under-represented groups.

BUT…Western audiences don’t go and see movies that don’t have recognisable actors and especially don’t go and see movies cast entirely with Chinese actors. You can point the finger at Hollywood and blame them for this trend but this is also on the audiences who are letting minority and foreign movies die at the box office. So shut your butt.

Let’s continue. Zhang Yimou is a Chinese director who is known for his bright and striking use of colours and artistically directed action sequences. This is his first English language production and his first time working in conjunction with a Western company. This leads to an amalgamation of styles – a somewhat conventional Hollywood action script overlaid with Yimou’s distinct style.

Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal are two soldiers who find themselves imprisoned on the Great Wall just in time for a massive horde of monsters to come crashing down upon them. They witness the ‘Nameless Order’ of soldiers unleash fantastic weapons, gadgets and techniques to repel the creatures (although I question the visually impressive but bloody stupid bungee jump attack). Their plan is to get their hands on ‘black powder’ to take back West, but Damon and his variable accent is compelled to help defend the wall. Mostly due to Commander Lin of the Crane Troop.

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We get a super awkward moment early on where it looks like Damon is going to use his whiteness to defeat the monsters with ease and share his wisdom with the silly Chinese, but it turns out he had a magical MacGuffin that weakens the beasts. As we said before using these outsider characters to bring the audience into this world and experience it from their perspective is a common and effective narrative technique. 

Speaking of common narrative techniques the movie is as conventional a Hollywood story as it comes. Fairly predictable every step of the way. The strengths of The Great Wall come from it’s creative design in their anti-monster strategies. Spinning scissor blades, flaming catapults, screaming arrows, hot air balloons – no two action sequences are the same and the movie never feels dull. The monster designs are also interesting, they’re something a bit left of centre.

Yimou really does have a unique and breathtaking visual style, and it’s a bit strange seeing it applied to such a conventional story. Many audience members mind feel put off by the bright, BRIGHTLY coloured armour worn by the Chinese army that kinda makes them look like the new Power Rangers reboot. The final battle is literally lit using rainbows. Some, like me, will like it but it’s possible it won’t sit right with Western audiences used to their action movies being presented in just dark blue and orange.

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Is The Great Wall good? It’s OK. It’s creative and has plenty of exciting action. It’s very unique in the current action movie market but gets weighed down with a flat script. 

Rating: SIX out of TEN

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