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The Great Wall Review

By Lora Grady

Epic Fail

Moviegoers who decide to check out would-be epic "The Great Wall" may find themselves pondering a number of weighty historic and political questions, such as, "Did women actually command armies in Song-dynasty China?" "Could a 5,500 mile long wall really be kept secret from the outside world?" And, "How does uber-Bostonian Matt Damon manage to foul up an Irish accent??"

In underplaying his dialect choice Mr. Damon may have been aiming for subtlety in a movie where such a concept has no place. "The Great Wall" is all about towering scale and riotous bombast: it's loud and bright and fast-paced, with massive, colorfully-clad armies squaring off against hordes of marauding monsters. There's a plot, of course, but it's enough of an afterthought that the film's first epic battle takes place before we're even brought up to speed on where the army came from and what the monsters are all about. It's clear that backstory is not the priority here.


"Wall"'s plot, such as it is, revolves around a pair of mercenaries, Mr. Damon's William Garin, a self-professed veteran of the Battle of Hastings, and his traveling companion Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal, Game of Thrones), a cheerful cynic whose primary interest is the bottom line. The pair have made their way to China in search of "black powder" - i.e., gunpowder, a rare and mysterious weapon at the time, one that, according to Pero, will "open any door". Along the way they are assailed by a huge, vicious lizard-like creature that seems well on its way to making a meal of them until William suddenly gains the upper hand, as it were, by slicing off the creature's arm, then hurling the predator over a cliff.

Arm in tow, our heroes continue on their journey until abruptly confronted by the towering, titular "Great Wall". A massive army resides there, waiting for the next attack by the lizard creatures, which comes all too soon. By showing off the arm William is able to prove his combat prowess, and he and Pero are drawn into battle.

To say that "Wall" lacks subtlety is not to say that it is undisciplined; in fact, the battle scenes, though lacking context due to the strangely overlooked backstory, are beautifully choreographed and visually thrilling. Director Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern", "Ju Dou") brings his trademark eye for color to these scenes, where warriors clad in vibrant red, deep blue, and rich gold silks intermingle with an acrobatic grace as they prepare for battle.

A mild attempt at building a storyline yields the introduction of Commander Lin (Jing Tian), a fierce female warrior who imparts some vague history about the monsters, or Taoties, who embody human greed...maybe? Lin also attempts to instruct William on such virtues as trust and honor, but she gives up upon learning that he is a mercenary who fights for money rather than loyalty: "We are not the same." Hmm, think they're going to find some common ground by the time the credits roll?

For a film that's chock-full of action sequences, "The Great Wall" is surprisingly tedious. With all of the energy being directed to the battle scenes there's little bandwidth left over for development, and the end result is that we're watching personality types ticking off plot points rather than growing to care about the characters we should be getting to know. Although "Wall"'s lead is a man of action, Mr. Damon plays the role from the back seat, being driven by the plot rather than driving it, and virtually phoning in a third-act emotional shift that was telegraphed way up front.

"Wall" is not without value; it's consistently visually impressive, and occasionally gorgeous. A fleet of mourning balloons floating upward over the vast stretch of the Wall is epic and lovely, and balloons are used again later on in an equally dazzling display over the Emperor's palace. A tense sequence unfolding inside a tower with kaleidoscopic stained glass windows is also a visual treat. But this is balanced against silly CGI monsters that manage to be both over-engineered and dull. And, with characters you won't particularly care about, it's hard to feel that there's much at stake. While it may be great to look at, the lack of substance is tough to overcome; ultimately, there are just too many holes in this "Wall".

What did you think?

Movie title The Great Wall
Release year 2016
MPAA Rating PG-13
Our rating
Summary As a wall, it's great. As a movie? Not so much.
View all articles by Lora Grady
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