The Great Wall (2016)
Directed by: Zhang Yimou | 103 minutes | action, adventure, fantasy, thriller | Actors: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Eddie Peng, Numan Acar, Lu Han, Vicky Yu, Bing Liu, Kenny Lin, Hanyu Zhang, Ryan Zheng, Johnny Cicco, Xuan Huang, Karry Wang, Cheney Chen
Battles are almost always difficult to visualize. Many filmmakers don’t have the resources to make a large army look believable. And what do you want to focus on as a director? The characters or the scale of the battle that you manage to bring to life? One of the few successes is of course Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, which perfectly managed to switch between these two factors. Especially the Battle of Helm’s Deep from the second part of the aforementioned trilogy must have made a great impression on director Zhang Yimou, who makes a throw to provide this battle with a Chinese version. Unfortunately, it’s just a throw.
The great wall in China. If we are to believe the intro text from the film, it is a place of history and legends. ‘The Great Wall’ tells one of those legends. The Chinese empire has been at war for centuries with a reptile race that attempts every sixty years to overthrow all of China and has plans for world domination. Why they are there is not important. The film attempts to explain it in one sentence, but this one raises more questions than it answers. Our two main characters William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) stumble upon the world wonder after months of searching for the mythical black powder (read: gunpowder), an explosive substance with which the west of the world should become invincible. . The two Westerners are initially labeled as prisoners, but after proving themselves in the film’s first battle, they gain more and more respect from their Chinese hosts and wives.
Just to get straight to the point, there is a lot wrong with ‘The Great Wall’. The action is overloaded with exaggerated slow-motion shots, the monsters form one big ugly animated mass, and the characters seem to have been run over with a steamroller (yes, that’s how flat they are). However, the question is, “is it fun?”. The answer to that is a cautious yes, the film knows what it is and everything is taken with a grain of salt. Tian Jing is wonderfully over the top as tough female commander Lin Mei and Andy Lau finally gets his Hollywood debut as strategist Wang. In fact, Chinese is often spoken and an interpreter often has to be involved when the westerners have to communicate with the eastern warriors.
However, in order not to let our American film fans read too many subtitles, the viewers get Ballard (Willem Dafoe) to choose from. Ballard had been looking for the black powder years before and has been stuck on the great wall ever since. He sees the arrival of the two newcomers as an opportunity to finally escape. It’s obvious that Ballard was written in it to make the film more manageable for a Western audience. The film would therefore have come out a lot better if it was fully focused on the Chinese characters.
However, there is no excuse for the hostile creatures. It is a faceless army that only serves to brutally slaughter the various soldiers or to be brutally slaughtered yourself. This works very effectively in the first action scene, because then everything is still new, ridiculously ridiculous and even a bit exciting. But as the print progresses, the novelty wears off, the ridiculous ceases to be as entertaining and even becomes boring.
Ultimately, ‘The Great Wall’ lacks construction. The viewer is immediately thrown into a conflict without any context, making it seem as if he/she is being presented with a very bad sequel to a mediocre first film. After all, we don’t feel anything for these characters, there is a hint to a dark past of Damon’s character, but nothing is ever done with it. Add to that the aforementioned problems and then ‘The Great Wall’ is just like that great not yet.