Matt Damon as a pan-European soldier sidling up to The Great Wall of China to fight monsters with a bow and arrow? Well, I mean, in description it sounds good. Somehow though, I’m still doubtful.
In some alternate reality, there’s a five hour cut of this film that not only makes sense, but doesn’t feel as overly truncated as Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall does. It’s a film about a century old wall and the age old guardians that protect China and the world from the onslaught of toothy, death-beasts. It’s packed with characters and notions and cool weapons, all of them demanding screen time. There’s a loose love story and some sort of political message about the inadequacy of China’s bureaucracy. And there’s monsters, lots and lots of monsters and arrows and spears and bungie-jumping, spear-tossing women. It is the hastily sketched outline of an epic, roughly shoved into an adequate, crowd-pleasing two hours. It stars Matt Damon as William, a lifetime soldier with a bad Irish accent, who with the help of Tovar (Pedro Pascal), has journeyed deep into China to try and find ‘black powder.’ Instead they find The Great Wall of China and monsters, lots and lots of monsters. The film starts strong, Tovar and William an odd couple of armor wearing Indiana Jones, smooth-talking and glorious to behold in battle. But the weight of what director Zhang Yimou is trying to accomplish here – big, epic, history … with monsters! – drags the film down, forcing it into a harried clip that leaves characters and their stories bleeding on the edges. Yimou stuffs the film with enough off-the-wall weapons and well-executed fight scenes to pull you along, but at some point – probably when a legion of hot-air balloon soldiers float their way into battle, you realize the film’s spread too thin, and all aspects suffer because of it. That said, Yimou’s action sequences are breathless and fun, and the film wholeheartedly embraces it’s sort of Power Rangers-meet-Game of Thrones oddity. It’s hard not to enjoy it, especially when Damon and Pascal are slaughtering the beasts with thrown axes and perfectly shot arrows, but it doesn’t add to anything. The scope is wide, but the execution strained because of it. This is an epic only in description, with characters, story and history short-shifted in the name of Hollywood palatability.
One Last Thought:
Why was everyone up in arms about Matt Damon playing the lead in this film? If I was a Chinese film maker, marketing a film towards a Chinese audience (which this film clearly is) and I wanted to capture the essence of European colonialism in one hunky star, well hell, Matt Damon’s square head and Midwestern good looks would be the direction I went as well.