Review by James McDonald
“The Great Wall” is that breed of film that could be received either way: it could be a big hit, or, it could bomb. I am hoping for the former as I had great fun with it and I think all big Hollywood stars should make movies like this in between their highbrow, award-winning features, it just goes to show that they are able to poke fun at themselves, and that they don’t take themselves too seriously. I like Matt Damon, he can be the strong silent type, ala Jason Bourne, he can be energetic and funny, like his Mark Watney character in “The Martian,” or he can be a straight-up, unlikable bad guy, see “The Departed.” In other words, he is very versatile. Here though, while he is supposed to be playing a European mercenary, his accent switches from upper-class English, to contemporary American, and if this were a serious Oscar contender, it would be a big issue but because it is a fictional fantasy, it really doesn’t take away from the onscreen fun.
The film takes place during the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and as the story begins, William (Matt Damon), his friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal), and three comrades in arms, are furiously riding away from deadly Khitan bandits. Eventually, they manage to evade capture, setting up camp but during the night, their three companions are killed by a creature that moves swiftly and without warning but before it can kill them, William, utilizing his skills as a gifted archer, and Tovar, applying his expertise with a sword, succeed in killing it, severing its arm in the process. William takes the creature’s limb and the two head north. Early the next morning, the bandits are hot on their trail and just as things seem hopeless, William and Tovar come up against the Great Wall of China, and they and their horses are surrounded by arrows which belong to Chinese soldiers of a secretive military sect called the Nameless Order. They are immediately held captive with the army intent on killing them but when one of the soldiers discovers the creature’s arm in one of their bags, they demand to know where it came from.
William tells them that the previous night, they were attacked by a creature they had never seen before and killed it, managing to sever its limb before it fell to its death in a large crevice. Suspicious of their story, one of the generals inspects their swords and finds green blood on the blade, verifying that what they said was true. Quickly, alarms sound and everyone makes their way to the top of the wall. William and Tovar are informed that this army was created for the sole purpose of battling a legion of mythical, alien monsters who rise every 60 years. The wall, they are told, was built to keep the creatures out of the capital but with each incursion, the army realizes that the creatures are learning at a rapid rate. When it is discovered that they have been tunneling beneath the wall, under the guise of darkness, and are well on their way to the capital, both William and Tovar must decide if this war is worth fighting for, or whether they should just go back to working as paid assassins.
“The Great Wall” is packed with eye-popping special effects and spectacular cinematography and director Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “House of Flying Daggers”), infuses the movie with a combination of practical special effects and CGI, and at times, they are so seamless, it’s almost impossible to know where one ends and the other begins. You cannot go into a film like this and expect Shakespeare so just enter the theater knowing that you are going to have fun. Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal have a great synergy between them, and their relationship delivers a lot of laughs, while Jing Tian, as Commander Lin Mae, serves as a possible love interest for Damon, who can more than match his skills with a weapon. The creatures are somewhat reminiscent of the Xenomorphs from the “Alien” movies and also bring to mind the Arachnids from Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers” but they eventually come into their own as a fierce, unstoppable adversary. While the film won’t win any awards for originality, or for Damon’s constantly changing accent, it does offer up nearly two hours of non-stop excitement and adventure. What more could you ask for?
In stores on Tuesday, May 23 on Blu-ray, DVD, 4K Ultra and On Demand. On digital HD now.