The Great Wall

Jake Richardson | 20/02/2017

Yimou Zhang brings colour to the forefront of this typically grey genre, but fails to bring any depth to a predictable script.

The Great Wall follows our hero William (Matt Damon), and his Spanish sidekick Tovar (Pedro Pascal). Although, anti-hero may well be the better term, as these two dastardly and deadly warriors are European mercenaries on the hunt for the fated ‘black powder’ in China. On the run from a group of Chinese outlaws, they run into the largest army they have ever seen, pristinely stationed atop the titular Great Wall.


They’ve arrived just in time, with Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), favourite troop leader of General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), gearing up along with the rest of the army in preparation for an imminent attack. After an incredibly lazy plot convenience leads William and Tovar to be held captive atop the wall during the battle, rather than in the dungeons, they discover what it is this army is fighting; a CGI crowd of beasts with eye’s in their shoulders called the Tao Tei. William and Tovar need to decide whether or not to continue with their attempts to loot the reserves of black powder, or to stay and use their skill to help these people protect their homeland.


The film represents one of the largest ever Chinese-American co-productions, and Chinese director Yimou Zhang helms it with varying degrees of skill. It’s entertaining, albeit predictably plotted. Much of the army’s costume and fighting technique seems more suited to a dance performance than war, and the CGI mass that is the limitless army of bad guys at times jars with the live action. Zhang brings his knowledge of, and experience with, colour to the film in tremendous ways, providing some striking visuals that feels refreshing after so many years of dark and gritty medieval action-dramas.

Pedro Pascal, as comic relief and moral-dilemma-catalyst Tovar, is a highlight. He is gruff and funny, despite working with an astonishingly large amount of cliché dialogue. You’ve seen it before, but it doesn’t make it any less entertaining. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well. Willem Dafoe’s Ballard seems to be there only to explain why Commander Lin Mae knows English, and while Tian Jiang certainly looks the part of the heroine, her performance is as subtle and nuanced as the Great Wall itself. Matt Damon suffers under his ever-varying accent, to the point that it is impossible to determine which continent his character is meant to be from, let alone which country.


Largely, the issues with The Great Wall boil down to the script.  Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy’s script seems built on convenience, with William having an answer, or some sort of ex-machina solution, to every problem. It dilutes the danger and the sense of impending doom, which is a shame as the script needs to make up for the lack of dread inherent in the computer generated antagonists. This is even more surprising given the number of characters who actually perish in the film. Admittedly, the film does end on a fresh note, but by that point it is too little too late in the way of innovative plot mechanisms.


An entertaining watch, and notable for its’ infusion of colour in a typically grey genre, The Great Wall waste’s some of the talent involved with a forgettable antagonist and a predictable, cliché script. Not the best work of anyone involved.