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The Great Wall Movie Review (Spoiler Free)

Impressive visuals, big-name actors & a compelling idea. Sadly, The Great Wall disappoints with lack of plot development, mediocre characters, & bland storytelling.

Genre: Action / Fantasy

Director: Yimou Zhang

Cast: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Tian Jing, Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe, Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng, Lu Han, Cheney Chen, Karry Wang & Numan Acar.

Run Time: 104 min.

US Release: 17 January 2017

UK Release: 17 January 2017

German Release: 12 January 2017

I am a fan of Chinese fantasy action flicks, and I like especially the lively colours and beautifully choreographed action sequences. Movies like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and Hero, belong to my top favourite movies and I still appreciate the cinematography, as well as the beautifully told tales every time I rewatch them. With the Great Wall, director Yimou Zhang is trying to melt Chinese folklore with blockbuster-like storytelling but the result is less than satisfying. Not even the presence of Matt Damon can save this Chinese fairytale.

The film takes place during the Song dynasty, when a European mercenary group that consists among others of William (Damon), Tovar (Pascal) and Najid (Acar), are roaming the Chinese lands in search of black powder. They are soon hunted by Khitan bandits and while hiding from them in the hills, they are attacked by a monster that kills all except William and Tovar, who luckily managed to kill the beast and cut off a hand. William takes the hand with him and both soon find themselves standing in front of the Great Wall.

The Chinese imperial guard, led by Commander Lin Mae (Jing), takes both captive while questioning them about the arm. They then explain to William that the great wall was built to keep humanity safe from these monsters that are led by a queen. William soon feels compelled to help Lin Mae fight off the threat, while his partner Tovar decides to escape the fortification together with another westerner known as Sir Ballard (Dafoe).

The premise of the story contains an interesting idea that could have done for a great movie, but the execution sadly didn’t develop the plot enough for me to care about what the Chinese military was protecting humanity from. Instead of weaving in the origin of the monsters, called the Totie, creatively into the plot, Zhang and writers Bernard, Miro and Gilroy, decided to add an exposition-heavy scene at the end of the second act that quickly wrapped up that segment of the story. This takes me to the biggest issue this film has, which is relying more on action and battle scenes, than narrative development.

The plot itself felt very generic and did not add anything new to the action blockbuster genre. Instead, the story aspects were handled as clichéd as possible, such as the romantic subplot that developed between the two main characters or the side story of the secondary villain that ended extremely anticlimactic and disappointing. Even the backstory of Damon’s character William was not fleshed out. That said, the media criticism about “whitewashing” have been completely unjust as it is William’s collaboration with the imperial guard that leads to successfully fending off the Taotie at first. The dialogue was just as tedious as the main narrative, even though it added a little bit of humour to the otherwise dull chain of events.

Matt Damon was cast as the Irish soldier William Garin, but he looked and sounded rather bored. William is a one-dimensional and uninteresting character, with no other engaging attributes other than his impressive fighting skills. His motives that make him stay and fight with the Chinese army weren't explored or explained, and thus the audience could not really sympathise with his decision. Tian Jing acted as the newly appointed Commander Lin Mae, Jin emitted a lot of charisma and played her role with more motivation, but her character was just as boring as Damon’s. Both characters growing attraction towards each other was a little unrealistic, as the actors had no real chemistry. The only silver lining about this horribly clichéd romance is that it doesn’t end with a kiss.

I was happy to see Pedro Pascal cast as Spanish mercenary Pero Tovar. I love his portrayal of Peña in Narcos and he brings further diversity to an already international movie. His character was witty as well as quite funny but just like all characters in this picture, he was also very shallow. Willem Dafoe was completely wasted. His character, Sir Ballard, was just in a few scenes and he had no outcome to the story at all.

Contrary to the empty main story, the cinematography of this movie left me open-mouthed from beginning to end. Cinematographers Stuart Dryburgh and Xiaoding Zhao collaborated and created an astonishing-looking picture that included darker more pale colours and vibrant and exploding tones, to contrast western film production with eastern moviemaking. The battle sequences included fantastic choreography and stunt work, which was captured impressively on film. The CGI, on the other hand, was rather mediocre; while the Taotie looked mostly good, there were scenes in battle where they looked fake and then there is the most obvious use of green screen in the last act.


Verdict: Even though the trailers did not manage to impress me, I was oddly looking forward to seeing this mash-up of Chinese and American filmmaking. In the end, though, The Great Wall was nothing but a disappointing action-fantasy blockbuster. The script was badly written and the plot showed no sign of character or story development, which resulted that I and other viewers did not care about the fates of the personas or the outcome of the movie. Matt Damon wasn’t able to convince as William and he had no chemistry with co-actress Tian Jing, who gave a good performance but her character was lacking in depth. Willem Dafoe, on the other hand, was completely miscast and wasted. The only redeeming aspect of this mediocre film is its photography, which convinced with its dark and desaturated tints contrasting the beautiful and vivid colours. I can’t recommend The Great Wall to anyone and will give it a 5.0 out of 10 for its beautiful camera work.

Thank you for reading, please leave a comment below and let me know what you thought of this flick. If you liked my review please give it a thumbs up and share it with your family and friends.


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