By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
Director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) is a filmmaker, well-known for a gorgeous and majestic style. For his latest movie The Great Wall, his first film with an American lead actor, Yimou employs some of his elegant sensibilities, but isn’t afraid to get gritty and dirty to present a fun, and sometimes exciting, monster movie. The plot is simple with a typical redemption tale as its story and with a certain amount of predictability to it. Still, the movie does deliver a few thrills and surprises and does it with a certain amount of grace, poise and respect for its Chinese heritage.
Matt Damon stars as William Garin, a European mercenary who, with his partner Tovar (Pedro Pascal), travel in search of the “black powder.” After surviving an attack by an unidentifiable monster at night, the two men approach the Great Wall and get captured by a secret order of soldiers tasked with guarding the wall. The two mercenaries soon discover that the creature that attacked them is part of a massive group of alien monsters that has attacked China for a couple of thousand years. At first, Garin and Tovar help General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) and their warriors fight the creatures and devise strategies, but another European named Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe) makes Garin and Tovar a tempting offer with a plan to steal the black powder from the Chinese soldiers and escape unharmed.
With a screenplay by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy (based on a story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz), Zhang Yimou has made a film that has some truly magical moments, but is hindered with lackluster writing and stiff, wooden acting from some of the cast members. The story plays out rather predictably, but does have some battle sequences which beautifully demonstrate the director’s ability to create stunning visuals. The CGI looks low budget, but is forgivable, as it never gets too distracting. My biggest distraction in the film, however, is the casting of Matt Damon in a role that should have been cast with an actor capable of pulling off a European accent.
There has been much controversy concerning the casting of Matt Damon in the lead role. Complaints of “whitewashing” and using a “white savior narrative,” are actually unfounded. The character is supposed to be a white European, English-speaking male and even though he helps the Chinese warriors, he is not quite a savior. My complaint concerning Damon has to do with the fact that he noticeably struggles maintaining an accent throughout the film, often sounding American. I feel that Damon is, otherwise, a great actor and I’m sure he does his best here. However, this role should’ve been played by an Irish, British, or even Australian actor that can pull off the appropriate voice.
As I reflect upon my complaints with this movie, I have come to the realization that Zhang Yimou has made a B-grade monster movie with splashes of elegance. The thrills and intensity is there, as is a charming sense of humor, but I feel that this film is a step down for the tremendously talented director. I am reluctantly recommending this film as a matinee feature or a rental when it is available. Also, I strongly recommend that my readers steer clear from the 3D version. It looks way too dark and the lovely palette of colors and striking visuals in the film cannot be enjoyed in this format. Fans of monster features set in a classic era will probably enjoy this movie, but they will need to temper their expectations.