If The Great Wall had been made 20-some years ago, it probably would have starred Brian Bosworth, Antonio Banderas, and Rufus Sewell. My then 13 year old self would have eaten up every last minute of it with a huge grin on my face. After all, it’s basically a lighthearted, more fantastical version of The 13th Warrior. So how did it fair with 30-something Daniel?
Yep, I still grinned the whole way through.
This is a big, fun period piece adventure movie about an army of monsters trying to invade China. The film hits the ground running and doesn’t stop to give either the viewers or their surrogate characters, a pair of mercenaries played by Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal, a chance to catch breath. All too often genre pictures give the audience more information than the characters, which generally saps the tension out of the proceedings. Not so here. We learn things as William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) do.
It seems that, in addition to keeping out human threats, China erected its Great Wall to keep out a massive, possibly otherworldly horde of ravenous creatures at bay. The inhuman fiends show up to feed every 60 years and wouldn’t you know it, William and Tovar picked the absolute worst time to come to China. Talk about horrible luck.
Outside of a couple of characters that aren’t long for this cinematic world, the only non-Asian members of the cast are the aforementioned Damon and Pascal, plus a super weaselly Willem Dafoe. They are all are playing greedy, self-centered garbage people. Coming on the heels of what our country has been through over the past year, it’s hard to argue against such a blanket judgement of our culture.
The rest of the players are comprised of Asian actors and actress, all but two of whom do not speak their dialogue in English. As a result, over half the film’s dialogue is subtitled. This is likely to be off-putting to at least a small chunk of American audiences, but as I’ll get into in a bit, this film wasn’t made for us.
While Damon and Pascal play well off of one another and dish out a healthy amount of comedic banter, the film really belongs to actress Zhang Hanyu (as General Shao) and Andy Lau (as Strategist Wang). These two, along with a few others, are front and center throughout the entire film and are very much the real heroes of the piece. In many ways, this plays like a project that was wholly made overseas and simply tossed in a few Hollywood actors to have North American release appeal.
Taking that particular feel even further is Matt Damon’s performance. A lot of critics are probably going to call his turn here “wooden” and they would necessarily be wrong. His character, William, is a mercenary who has spent his entire life on battlefields around the globe. Anyone who has seen even a single preview for this picture will know that Damon is brandishing a supremely odd accent in it. I have little doubt that his decision to do so stemmed from William growing up all around the globe, giving him an odd, but nondescript accent.
That’s not how it actually plays out in the film at hand, however. As someone who has grown up watching countless Japanese monster movies and Asian action films, it plays like the actor hired to play William was secured because he had a semi-recognizable name and was promptly dubbed. That might sound like a slam, and it is to a degree, but it gives the film an added slice of fun for me. Long story short? It feels like we’re watching a performance that amounts to “Matt Damon is Buff Fitwell as William the Mercenary”. Now you get my Brian Bosworth comparison above, because Damon absolutely feels like he’s giving an athlete-turned-action star performance here. Many will rightly hate this, but I kind of love it.
I could probably ramble on about this film for another ten paragraphs. After all, I haven’t even touched on the monsters themselves, which are pretty cool. I also haven’t touched on the fact that this was directed by Zhang Yimou. Probably best known for his period piece martial arts films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Yimou knows how to make beautiful action films. He has done so again here. No big budget monster movie full of this much pulpy, dopey fun should look this good, but by god, it does!
This film shouldn’t exist in this day and age. It shouldn’t exist because Hollywood does not make these kinds of movies anymore. What sane studio hands a foreign director $150 million to go make a big, often lavish, period piece monster movie FX extravaganza? It’s sheer insanity, but the best kind. So why does it exist? Because it wasn’t made for us. This film has China written all over it and that is exactly where it will make its fortune. In fact, it already has. To date, The Great Wall has already racked up almost $225 million overseas, with over $170 million of that coming from China. Its release here is an afterthought. This too makes me smile.
Hollywood movie-making is becoming an international affair moreso than it ever has before. Warcraft faceplanted here, but soared overseas. Pacific Rim made enough money abroad to get a sequel off the ground. Even this year’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage is poised to probably get a follow-up based on its overseas grosses. America is no longer the primary driving force behind moneymaking blockbusters and this is a good thing. With international interests now something that the studios are paying attention to, we’re going to start seeing a wider variety of tentpoles coming our way. Sometimes their U.S. releases will lead the pack. Sometimes their debut over here will simply be an after dinner mint, as with this film. Either way, as long as I keep getting handed triple digit-budgeted movies that are this fun, I don’t care. Keep them coming!
The Great Wall is no masterpiece. It’s not even a particularly great film. That said, boy oh boy is it a lot of fun. It’s a film about how greed tunnels its way in and destroys all that is good. It’s film about honor, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. It’s all of these things, while still also being a big adventurous monster flick. Give it a chance. If this sounds like your kind of jam, you’ll probably walk out of the theater smiling like an excited little kid again.
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