When you first hear the positively absurd premise for The Great Wall, your mind will naturally jump to one-of-two disparate conclusions. Either it will be so-bad-that-it’s good, or it will be a great, albeit batshit crazy, popcorn flick. There’s seemingly little room for anything outside of that binary. After all, this is a film about Matt Damon as an Irish (I think) mercenary teaming up with an army of colourfully attired, bungee jumping power-ranger lookalikes, in order to battle mythical lizard creatures that are trying to scale the Great Wall of China. I’ll give you a second to re-read that crack-pot rambling. Go on. Take your time.
One can only assume that this is loosely adapted from a collection of incoherent delusions, found scrawled upon an asylum wall in the author’s own shit. Which sounds promising as hell to me! Oh and it also has Willem Dafoe in it! So how can this be anything but majestically entertaining?
Well you see, the thing is, The Great Wall occupies that painfully awkward space halfway between wonderfully-trashy and genuinely-good. Which regrettably means that it’s neither of those things. On the contrary, it’s just a bit dull.
Most of this is down to the lacklustre screenplay/ asylum shit -crawling, which is comprised of some of the most tediously bland characters imaginable. Now, that might sound like it’s besides the point with this sort of thing, but what’s completely inexcusable, is just how much time we are forced to spend watching these utter dullards just talking to each other. Truthfully, this is the main reason that the film isn’t the joyous guilty pleasure it should have been, as the narrative repeatedly stops dead in its tracks, just to subject us to endless scenes of characters prattling on about the plot, but somehow revealing next-to-nothing about themselves.
We spend so long with all of these people, and yet I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of them, except maybe their weapon of choice and their preferred thematic buzz word (Matt Damon opts for ‘Trust’ whilst Tian Jing favours ponderous diatribes about ‘Greed’). I mean, how exactly do you go 104 minutes and not illuminate anything more about them than that? It’s almost impressive.
To be fair, you should probably take into account that they only had half a screenplay to work with, given that every single FUCKING line is repeated at least once. That’s not a joke by the way, in each of the film’s laborious dialogue scenes, we are forced to endure both the original trite (which is either in English or subtitled) and then the corresponding translation immediately afterwards! For every fucking line in the film! So just to make things clear, that means that every conversation ends up being double the requisite length, without actually giving you any additional information or development!
It’s just frustrating when such a wonderfully bonkers story has to be populated by these disappointingly lifeless and uninteresting individuals. What this film sorely needed was a Nic Cage-esque OTT performance in order to tease out the fun. I must reiterate that I wasn’t expecting Henrick Ibsen or anything, just characters with a little bit of charm or personality.
Whilst it’s tempting to lay the blame for this exclusively at the drab script, the cast doesn’t exactly help to elevate the material either. Neither Dafoe nor Pedro Pascal can inject their one-dimensional cut-outs with much in the way of magnetism or energy, which is surprising, because they usually have presence to spare.
Meanwhile, the typically reliable Matt Damon is thoroughly boring as the selfish-rogue-turned-selfless-hero archetype that we’ve seen a thousand times before. Although I will admit, his hysterically inconsistent accent was ironically the most consistent source of entertainment in the entire film.
Now, none of this is to say that there aren’t some saving graces here. Far from it, in fact, that’s actually quite a few of them. Firstly, the set-pieces are undeniably impressive, utilising both inventive staging and some eye-catching visual flourishes. On this subject, whilst the fight choreography is nothing to write home about, the action is given its own idiosyncratic flavour, as the film cleverly utilises the wall itself into proceedings. It’s such a fantastic setting for this type of siege movie, and the filmmakers thankfully nail this element of the premise, milking every last drop of potential from the tantalising location.
Indeed, the movie is truly at its best when the heroes are employing the wall’s imaginative defences to their advantage. In these moments, the creative team really goes all out, boasting a plethora of unique ideas, from the aforementioned bungee jumping power rangers, to spinning windmill-like blades that spring out of the wall to cut monsters down.
Oddly enough, there’s also a really nice attention to detail in terms of audio. Honestly, it’s a surprisingly great sound-mix, and it’s used effectively throughout in order to build tension and bring the nightmarish world to life. A good example of this is an especially atmospheric, fog-drenched battle in the second act. Here, the film compensates for the reduced visibility by relying heavily on a vivid soundscape of eerie noises and foreboding wind. It was kind of creepy and to be frank, it was the closest that the film every came to being properly well-crafted.
On a similar note, Ramin Djawadi offers up another one of his excellent scores, with music that artfully weaves in out of the diegetic and non-diegetic space. Admittedly a few of the cues will be suspiciously familiar to viewers of a certain HBO production, but nevertheless, the soundtrack remains one of the big highlights.
It’s truly baffling to see a film excel so much in certain technical areas, and yet stumble so spectacularly in others. I mean, even the editing here is fucking bipolar! On the one hand, the action sequences graciously avoid the modern predilection for incoherent ADHD cutting. In fact, there’s a fair amount of lengthy takes to enjoy. But at the same time, it appears that whole chunks of the film are outright missing, with scenes being introduced seemingly halfway through, and others feeling incredibly rushed, like they were cut down to their bare bones.
In short, for every positive point here, you will find that there is an equal-and-opposite negative. Whilst the set-pieces are often quite striking in terms of their scope and vision, they are also completely ruined by substandard CGI and weak creature designs. Meanwhile, even though the Wall is used as an effective setting for the first couple of acts, it is then completely jettisoned for the film’s underwhelming and restrained climax.
As a result, The Great Wall balances out as a totally mediocre product. It’s neither gloriously bad, nor gloriously good. Instead, it’s just caught in a depressingly mundane limbo state.
Except for that accent. That accent was just awful.
The Great Wall (2017) is directed by Zhang Yimou and is distributed in the the UK by Universal Pictures International. Certificate 12a.