Ever since the release of its trailer, The Great Wall has been a highly-discussed film for all the wrong reasons. Set in Ancient China and starring superstar Matt Damon, many have blatantly claimed this film as yet another example of whitewashing.
That negative buzz has only continued with the film’s release, as it has failed to strike a cord with critics (currently at 38% on Rotten Tomatoes). The Great Wall follows William, a European mercenary on the search for gunpowder. Soon he begins to get involved in China’s epic battle against a horde of monsters, and realizes he needs to fight for a cause.
The Great Wall has gotten a lot of flak, and I honestly think much of that hate is unwarranted. This is a thankfully refreshing old-school blockbuster that packs a lot of B-movie entertainment throughout.
Before delving into the film, I want to talk about the claims of whitewashing surrounding the film. All these claim are clearly from people who have not seen the film, as this is one of the most diverse blockbusters ever made in the Hollywood system. Matt Damon’s casting makes perfect sense, as he plays a character who is an outsider to what is going on in China. The Ancient Chinese culture is depicted as one of honor and integrity, with one unified unit working to defeat evil forces.
As far as the film goes, The Great Wall is a film that owns its simplistic B-movie roots. Many may call that a negative, but it was honestly a delight to see a blockbuster that didn’t feel the need to be epic or more complex than it needs to be. At 103 minutes, the film is focused and doesn’t fall into the trappings of other blockbusters. It’s essentially a big-budget B-movie, and it delivers on the promise of one. It doesn’t takes itself too seriously, interjecting some nice touches of humor, but never becoming outright campy.
Much of the credit has to go to visionary director Yimou Zhang, who is directing his first American feature after several great Chinese films (Hero and House of Flying Daggers). Zhang directs this film with a wonderful vibrance, full of bright colors and immersive landscapes. He creates a lot of beautiful visuals that are unlike anything audiences have seen before. Zhang continues that vibrancy into his action set pieces, which thankfully are entertaining while never becoming bloated. His varied style always makes whats on screen engaging.
Performance-wise, the actors do a solid job of grounding this material. Matt Damon does his best Nic Cage impression, boasting a unique Irish accent and a ponytail. That may sound bad on paper, but Damon delivers his natural charisma and gives his character a much-needed sense of humanity. This film is certainly more about the ensemble, with Tian Jing, Lu Han, and Pedro Pascal also delivering solid performances in their respective roles.
The Great Wall suffers where most B-movies falter. The script, which was collaborated on by five writers, is very simplistic. The characters aside from their few notable traits have very little depth to make them feel all that interesting. Its a good thing that actors are capable, as this script gives them very little to work with.
Even at 103 minutes, the film still has some weak points. The second act in particular gets a bit too bogged down into its characters and story, losing some of the great momentum it had working in its favor. Thankfully, the film recovers and delivers a satisfying conclusion.
The Great Wall may be light on story, but it’s a refreshing throwback that delivers with excitement and style along the way. Let’s hope Yimou Zhang continues to work with this kind of budget, as he pulls off an amazing spectacle.