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The Great Wall, directed by Zhang Yimou, is a cheesy, colorful dumb monster movie and it never tries to be anything more or anything less.
A group of mercenaries travel far to the East in search of gunpowder. Relentless bandit attacks, an encounter with a strange beast leaves only William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) alive. Their journey leads them to The Great Wall, where the Nameless Order, a division of the Chinese army created to repel a horde of alien monsters that rise every 60 years, resides. Tovar wants to steal from their gunpowder supplies and escape, but William is conflicted, for the cause of the Order seems to finally give him a sense of purpose.
It’s pretty obvious that Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe are in this movie because they’re names and faces Western audiences will recognize and might turn up to watch a movie for. They definitely bring name recognition, but I guess they forgot their talent at home – not that their performances are bad, but all of them can and have done much better work in the past. This is essentially a talented cast on autopilot, which is true for the Chinese cast as well, at least those whose work I’m familiar with – looking at you, Andy Lau. To be fair, the stiffness of the performances is at least partly due to the stilted, cheesy dialogue and flat characterization.
Then again, it’s a little silly to go into a monster movie for the acting or the writing, so there’s no point in judging it too harshly. It’s serviceable, moves along at a decent pace and even gets a few laughs here and there. The real bread and butter of The Great Wall is the action and spectacle and that is where it truly shines. This is a pretty movie, with very distinct, vibrant colors. Watching large numbers of Chinese soldiers wearing boldly color-coded armor sets and fighting hordes of very green monsters makes for some great eye candy.
The action itself is very over-the-top as well as varied and creative – from the Crane Corps, led by badass Lin Mae (Jing Tian) that essentially bungee jump off the wall to attack the monsters below, or having giant scissors slice up the beasts as they climb, every battle has something very new and different going for it. Slow motion is often deployed to maximize the ridiculousness of the action and for the most part, it pays off. Sometimes the stretches in between the action are too long and there definitely could have been a bit more fighting going on, but there’s here enough to keep you entertained.
While The Great Wall gets spectacle right, the monsters never really appear dangerous or menacing. The main reason for that is all the main characters are unstoppable killing machines capable of superhuman feats of combat and agility, and everyone else is pretty much cannon fodder. We’re not meant to be worried about the characters, we’re meant to bask in their greatness as they slay dozens of monsters without seemingly breaking a sweat. As such, The Great Wall is fun while it lasts, but it doesn’t really have any staying power. Once the initial rush wears off, there’s very little reason to come back for more.
The Great Wall is not a bad movie, but it’s not quite a good one either. It is definitely a fun movie and the relatively short running time means it doesn’t overstay its welcome.