William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are part of a group of mercenaries in China searching for fabled “black powder” weapons. While hiding from bandits, the mercenaries are attacked by a creature, with William and Tovar being the only survivors. The two are eventually captured at the Great Wall of China, which is the base of operations for a secretive military sect called the Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Commander Lin (Jing Tian) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau). Meeting fellow foreign prisoner Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), the three make a plan to steal the Nameless Order’s supply of black powder weapons and escape. However, William becomes sympathetic towards the Nameless Order’s efforts to protect the land from the constant attacks from the reptilian creatures known as Tao Tei.
Over the past number of years, China has become one of the world’s biggest film markets, to the point that many Hollywood blockbusters have inserted in Chinese characters and locations to appeal to those audiences. The Great Wall, directed by acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Hero, The House of Flying Daggers), seems to be continuing that trend on a much larger scale. For all intents and purposes, The Great Wall is a Chinese film, with the inclusion of movie star Matt Damon in the lead role to ensure that the film appeals to audiences on both ends of the Pacific.
At first glance, The Great Wall seems to be the latest example of Hollywood’s trend of whitewashing foreign stories. Indeed, it can be easy to compare this film to something like The Last Samurai, with William being the exceptionally skilled fighter, who becomes the hero for this Chinese army. While the film undoubtedly features some of that, The Great Wall also doesn’t ignore its stacked Chinese cast, which includes the likes of Andy Lao (Infernal Affairs) and Tian Jing (Police Story: Lockdown). The film even has the Chinese characters speaking Mandarin when they are not conversing with William, Tovar, or Ballard.
On the technical side of things, The Great Wall can be praised for its great looking production design, which includes different coloured armour for the various troops of the Nameless Order. The film also has some better than average 3D effects, making the film worth seeing in that format. However, other than looking really pretty, the action of The Great Wall is frankly not all that exciting, with the film pretty much falling under the pattern of CGI armies fighting CGI monsters. It’s probably no coincidence that The Great Wall gives a story credit to Max Brooks and that the Tao Tei often come across like the zombie swarms in World War Z.
While the inclusion of Matt Damon’s character is somewhat necessary to the story, both Pedro Pascal’s character of Tovar and Willem Dafoe’s Sir Ballard could have been removed from the film without really affecting the plot. While Pascal (Game of Thrones) does provide a level of comic relief with his performance, Dafoe is really in the film to be a plot device, and to generate some conflict with William.
Given the history of whitewashing in Hollywood films, The Great Wall could have turned out a lot worse than it actually is. However, at the end of the day, this is just an OK action picture that isn’t even really aimed at North American audiences.
Is The Great Wall opening weekend worthy?
The Great Wall is not a terrible film, but it isn’t all that great either. If you want a middle of the road action film that looks pretty with some decent 3D effects, The Great Wall might be worth checking out. However, there are much better films in the theatre right now.
The Great Wall opens Friday, February 17, 2017 at Cineplex locations. Check their website for more information.
The Great Wall Trailer