Review: The Great Wall

the great wall matt damon poster

I kind of felt that Jason Bourne, the most recent in the Bourne franchise, really didn’t explore anything new. It was treading the same old ground. Director Paul Greengrass should have changed it up. How about switch the location (how about China?), the era (AD 1000 sounds good), and instead of fighting corrupt CIA goons, why not pitch him against space aliens. Sounds like we’re on to a winner.

Matt Damon (Elysium) is William Garin, a European (his accent switches from British to Irish) mercenary searching his way across Asia looking for the secret of “black powder”. Now I’m not sure pepper had been discovered by then, but it’s a given he’s not there on some culinary exchange program. Gordon Ramsay doesn’t make a surprise appearance. No, he’s there for the other black powder. Gunpowder.

He set out years ago after hearing tales of this mythical weapon alongside a bunch of other dudes who figured they’d be able to make some decent cash using it to topple governments and what-not. But their search is taking a toll. Most of them are dead, and only the strong remain. You’ve got Garin, his best buddy the Spaniard Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal – Narcos), and a few other nondescript guys. Don’t worry about these dudes. They’ll all be dead inside of five minutes. Just know that they’re being pursued by some raider types and it’s likely they won’t survive the night.

So they’re totally unprepared (as are we) for a fireside attack by some unseen monster type. Soon it’s just Garin and Tovar left. Garin manages to cut an arm from the beast and takes it as some kind of trophy. What use it will serve on a journey where they’re doggedly being tracked by hunters and every additional pound of extra weight will mean the different between life and death is not clear at this stage.

the great wall movie still

Praise Jesus he did bring it though because when the pair turn a corner and hit a giant fucking wall (The giant fucking wall) it at least gets them in the door. This wall is crawling with people, all armed and marching about doing stuff. They’re clearly preparing for some attack of some sort. Massively out-gunned, the Westerners surrender and are lead inside.

They’re quizzed by the five Power Ranger – five commanders who all wear different coloured armor (which matches the colour of the troops they command). The leader in black (naturally), General Chao, is curious as to why they’re here and why Matt Damon is carrying some monster arm.

“How did this pig man do this?” they ask in Mandarin. Now I’d be concerned by an army that doesn’t know how to cut things with a sword. I’d consider that basic damn training during the era where most your killing would be done at the end of something pointy and sharp. Matt Damon mimes cutting something using his sword and they seem convinced.

But there’s still a fifty fifty consensus between killing them as potential thieves, or merely locking them up forever. But Garin and Tovar are busy planning their escape. “I can take out this guy, you kick that guy in the balls” etc. It’s a shame that Strategist Wang (Andy Lau – Infernal Affairs) and the blue power ranger princess Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian – Police Story 2013) both speak English.

the great wall movie willem dafoe

This isn’t the first time greedy Western folk have appeared on their doorstep looking for black powder and other mystical shit. In fact there’s a dude who has been living at the wall among the “Nameless Order” for twenty years now – Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe – John Wick). He drifts in and out of this movie, and kind of acts as the B-story. He’s still set on robbing the dumb order of all their gunpowder. Surely, after twenty years you’d sort of got used to life there, right? He ain’t gonna get that kung pow chicken in Christendom is he?

Dafoe is criminally underused here. I don’t even know why he’s in this. Maybe he was indentured to the studio or press-ganged by Damon. It’s not like this is a badass or significant role for him. The sad part is Dafoe can do that kind of thing. He can steal a scene or two. Here’s he’s given nothing to work with. You can almost see the pain in those big eyes of his. He doesn’t even get to crack that evil grin either. What a waste. Maybe the character was a bit more developed and they cut it? All he does is serve as another piece of ammo for the white wash police (more on this later).

They decide that they’re not going to behead them just yet, but just to imprison them instead. Wang is all “they might be able to help us, it’s the prophecy etc”, but at this stage they’re just filthy long-haired Westerners. They look like two metal heads after six days at Bloodstock. They have that vinegary ball-sack sweat thing going on, and for some time. I wouldn’t trust them either.

the great wall alien queen

As they’re lead to the prison, the “Tao Tei” attack. The Tao Tei are what the Nameless Order are here to fight. Effectively, they’re like massive alien dogs that fell to Earth in a meteorite hundreds of years ago. The Great Wall was constructed by the order to stop them from penetrating into China. Every sixty years they attack in an effort to break through. The weird arm Damon was carrying around – one of the Tao Tei.

These creatures are broken up into three types. You’ve got the dog alien things. These comprise of 99% of the army. Then you’ve got the royal guardian aliens. These are bigger dog aliens, but with massive heads which they use to shield the queen. The alien queen commands everything using high frequency sounds.

The design of the monsters is not very evocative. Only the guard aliens look particularly mean, and they never, ever get involved in fighting. Despite the setting you gotta compare this to something like Aliens, where the xenomorphs looked…alien and weird and scary. They had crazy acid blood and had this whole evil life-cycle. Nothing like this here. Instead the dog-aliens just throw themselves at the humans, zombie style. I got a Starship Trooper vibe from the big battle scenes, but the aliens here never look as fearsome or deadly as the bugs in Verhoeven’s ’97 classic.

Apparently the film was very much a multi-national production, with loads of teams all working together. But there’s a point where there’s too many chefs in the kitchen. Without some crazy visionary doing the designs, you’re gonna get something wholly generic looking as the aliens in The Great Wall. You need a Giger or that dude who thought up the crazy beast in Outlander.

the great wall movie blue acrobats

With no time to pop them in prison, Garin and Tovar are brought to the battlements to watch the first Tao Tei attack. Here the Order show how badass prepared they are. The red dudes fire massive barrages of arrows into them, while the orange dudes unleash secret weapons built into the wall. Stuff like massive razor blades, catapults etc. It’s all really nicely thought out. The coolest element is the blue “acrobat” women who attach themselves to bungee cords and bounce down to the ground beneath, impaling the dog aliens on wicked spears. Garin and Tovar are clearly impressed.

But there’s just too many of the things for them to kill quick enough, and before long their bodies form an effective ladder over the wall. One such beast gets onto the battlements and starts wrecking shit. One of the black shock troopers is frozen in fear, but saved by Garin and Tovar. They do some slick team-work and kill the dog alien easily. The attack quickly crumbles thereafter, with the queen signalling a retreat. The battle is over for now.

the great wall movie matt damon alien fight

Both the Westerners are now considered heroes, and told to join everyone for a celebratory feast. First, they should clean themselves up though. They both shave and shear themselves immaculately. This always bothers me in films. In fact, it pisses me off in The Bourne Identity the most. When Bourne is cutting Franke Potente’s (Run Lola Run) hair to make her less conspicuous, he fashions it into a decent hair cut. I don’t care if you are some sleeper CIA agent, that doesn’t qualify you to be the next Vidal Sassoon.

While everyone parties the night away, the Tao Tei are planning their next attack. Plus Sir Ballard has a proposition for them too. So are Garin and Tovar going to take these poor Chinese men and women for a ride? Or are their nicer instincts going to get the better of them, and they’ll stay to protect the land?

The_great_wall_matt_damon_pedro_pascal

It’s only after the movie is over do you realize that it peaked about 20 minutes in. It’s like all the work and cool shit was thrown at the screen during that initial attack. Everything else is a come down and fails to match that spectacle. You’ll be surprised to learn that this film doesn’t even end on the wall. No, the aliens decide to dig a tunnel under it, making it, you know, kind of redundant. Some fucking great wall.

Another element that is sadly underplayed is the aliens themselves. Like a microwave meal, they look totally uninspired when you see them up close. Nor do we ever get to visit the curious green world of the aliens, despite it looking kind of interesting. “Hunters went but never came back”. Sounds like a challenge for Jason Bourne to me. You know that old dramatic axiom that reads “if you show them a gun in the first act, it has to shoot someone in the third?”. Well that doesn’t apply here. Nobody even gets pistol whipped.

the great wall matt damon jian tian

This film would be really good without Matt Damon and Pedro. I don’t understand what point they serve. Okay, I do. Damon specifically makes the movie sell better in the West. But from a narrative perspective, he’s just not that interesting, nor does his expertise really add anything new to the mix. The only significant thing he has is a magnetic rock which prevents the aliens from communication with the queen. Well a fucking child could have brought that.

All the stuff on the wall, with the colour-coded armies is really sweet though. I think focusing more on this eternal battle would have been better served instead of shoe-horning Damon/Pedro into it.  At least he isn’t playing an American. His accent is sort of tolerable, but he looked more accurate with the beard. When he shaves it he’s just regular Matt Damon and the illusion totally shattered. Now I do like Damon in most things. He seems like a regular type dude, so I can’t blame this entire mess on him. I think the same shit would have happened if he’d have been replaced with any A-list action guy.

the great wall movie jing tian

Lets cut the crap though; he’s been put into this to make it more appealing to a wider range of people. That’s fair enough. But you can totally understand why everyone went crazy, claiming that director Zhang Yimou (who made the great Hero with a distinctly non Western cast) was forced into putting a white star in to make it tolerable in the West. This is a double edged sword. Yeah, more people are going to see a predominantly English-speaking film. But there is also that sub-sect of filmgoers who like foreign language movies. Wasn’t the likes of Hero or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, major movies in the West? With such a drab, undeveloped story, it’s hard to argue that featuring Hollywood stars was nothing but a financial decision, and not a creative one.

“But what about Tom Cruise in Last Samurai, dude”, you pipe in, “wasn’t that a whitewash too?”

Tom Cruise’s character is brought specifically to Japan because of his knowledge of modern warfare techniques. That seems reasonable. Damon is here searching for the mysterious “black powder”. Fair play, but he’s a warrior. How the hell does he intend to get barely any of it back to Blighty? Doesn’t make sense. If they’d made his quest for some badass sword or something, yeah, it’s be a bit silly, but more in keeping with the whole “this entire movie is fucking silly” aesthetic. Plus, Cruise hardly plays the heroic white savior role too. He’s a drunk, post traumatic stress-suffering douchebag, whom even loses in the final battle. If The Great Wall is tells us anything it’s that China and the entire world would have fallen if it wasn’t for Matt Damon being on the case.

the great wall movie matt damon saving everyone

Saying that, it’s still far superior to the God awful Gods of Egypt. Thinking about that piece of shit still makes me feel vomitous. The Great Wall also has some humorous moments, and admittedly nice action sequences. The bungee stunts are all CGI, but good looking regardless. Jing Tian is a formidable and likable leading lady too, whom I was impressed didn’t fall for the Western wiles of Damon at any point.

I personally would have loved to see an all-Chinese movie about this story, without having to expend precious screen-time on Damon and Pedro. But what we’re left with isn’t totally unsalvageable. You don’t have to think too hard. There’s some cool action moments and a sense of stylishness to the presentation. You’re effectively left with medieval Chinese Starship Troopers featuring good Will Hunting and that bloke from Narcos. Get it watched.

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