Great Wall, The (2016) Review

"The Great Wall" Japanese Theatrical Poster

“The Great Wall” Japanese Theatrical Poster

Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Cheney Chen, Huang Xuan, Karry Wang, Ryan Zheng, Numan Acar, Johnny Cicco, Vicky Yu, Bing Liu
Running Time: 104 min. 

By Kyle Warner

In 2008, Zhang Yimou amazed the world with the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. It was a spectacle for the eyes, ears, heart, and mind. As a fan of his movies and as a stunned observer of the Beijing opening ceremony, I wonder if Yimou ever felt intimidated by his own success at the Olympics. Because, though I’ve mostly enjoyed the films Yimou made post-Olympics, I think it’s fair to say that they’re not up to the quality that we’ve come to expect from the master filmmaker. His first film after the Olympics, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, an oddball remake of the Coen’s debut thriller Blood Simple, was amusing but hardly an essential piece of the director’s filmography. The Flowers of War, for all its beautiful cinematography and important historical content, feels dramatically cool and distant. Coming Home, a drama about lives being torn apart during the Cultural Revolution, bears similarities to Yimou’s masterful To Live but lacks all the subtlety found in that earlier film. So, if you were to tell me a year ago that an aggressively silly monster movie starring Matt Damon would be the film where Zhang Yimou got his groove back, I’d call you crazy. And yet… here we are?

William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are soldiers on the run from bandits in the northern mountains of China. They’re in China looking for black powder to take back to their armies but are intercepted by a strange beast in the night. William kills the monster, which falls into a ravine, and he claims a severed green arm as a trophy. The next morning, the soldiers are chased once more, and their flight leads them to the front steps of the Great Wall of China, manned by a thousand Chinese soldiers. William and Tovar are put in chains, led into the Wall, and interrogated. It’s only after Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) discovers the severed green arm in the foreigner’s supplies that they begin to listen to their story more closely. When William tells him that they met the beast only two days ride to the north, a note of fear spreads through the Chinese soldiers. They know what this monster is. They know that there are more of them. And they had not dared to think that they could already be so close.

From there we get a wham-bam action movie with so many moving pieces, so many strange sights, and it’s all – somehow – conducted in a clear, easy to follow manner. Thousands of green monsters that look a bit like inbred, mutant dinosaurs (complete with eyeballs located on their shoulders and vibrating xylophones on their spines) come charging towards the Great Wall like a unified force. The Chinese soldiers go to their posts; they each have a job to do. The soldiers in red are archers. The soldiers in black are infantry who man the wall should a monster make it over the top. The soldiers in purple protect the general (Zhang Hanyu). And women in blue jump over the wall with a spear to stab at the monsters below before they are towed back to the top on a rope and pulley system. Meanwhile, William and Tovar are tied up and terrified, just watching shit unfold like maybe they took one bad turn too many and ended up in the worst spot imaginable. The foreigners free themselves, then join in on the fight, doing enough good work to stay their executions for now.

When everything’s working, the movie can be quite a rush. And even at the stupidest moments, The Great Wall is still good fun. It’s an escapist man vs. monster movie set in Ancient China with a strong cast and a great director at the helm. Is it a less important movie than even some of Yimou’s near-misses, like Flowers of War (which also featured a Hollywood star)? Yes, probably. But it’s a better film because it achieves all that it sets out to do. Mainly: have a good time showing cool actors kill off weird monsters for a little under two hours.

The Great Wall has gotten some heat from critics and filmgoers for whitewashing Chinese history. And listen, I understand the complaint because movies like Ghost in the Shell have some difficult questions to answer. But I gotta tell ya, The Great Wall doesn’t really belong in the same conversation. I don’t think it even belongs in the conversation of ‘white savior’ adventure movies where the American saves the day for a tribe of people different from him. Damon’s William comes to China to steal gunpowder and he has no illusions about being an honorable man. He’s a fine fighter, yes, but the only game changing thing he brings to China’s fight against the monsters is Europe’s whale hunting methods (which, for a modern viewer, may not read as a very heroic thing for our character to know so much about). And sure, William changes his tune as the film progresses, becoming more of a good guy, but he never becomes the savior, let alone the leader. William becomes a valuable member of the team, different background and all, and ultimately I feel like that’s a positive message that both Chinese and American films could use more of. As for William’s comrade Tovar, Pedro Pascal (Narcos) plays the part as even more roguish than Damon’s William. Tovar wants to rip off the Chinese, even when he sees the fight they’re up against. Willem Dafoe (John Wick) has a small part, and he too belongs in the bastard category. So, if you have major issues with whitewashing in Hollywood, I hear you. But I don’t think a film directed by Zhang Yimou, financed with Chinese money, filmed half in Mandarin, and depicting white dudes as thieving opportunists is the movie you should be taking issue with. My advice, watch it before developing too strong of a political opinion against it.

If Jing Tian was more of a star in the west at this point in her career, I do believe she’d share top billing with Damon on the posters because she’s very much the film’s co-lead. As Commander Lin, Jing is the Great Wall’s most fiercely loyal defender. She believes in something deeper than gold or renown, which causes her to clash with William who is more the mercenary, and makes for some decent character work. With parts in Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising coming up, perhaps Jing Tian’s star is on the rise in the US.

Hong Kong favorite superstar Andy Lau (Saving Mr. Wu) has a nice supporting part as the Great Wall’s head strategist. It was weird for me at first, having seen Lau in so many Chinese productions, to see him speaking English opposite Matt Damon. And Lau did a commendable job, too, playing the most levelheaded guy in a movie full of characters who are either macho or terrified. I’m not sure if this will lead to more English speaking roles for Lau or not but he did a good enough job to deserve the shot if he so desires.

The film looks beautiful. Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) perfectly captures the crazy visuals and Yimou’s delicious use of colors. As mentioned, all the soldier units are decked out in different colored armors and the monsters are green. It’s like a painter’s palette has been weaponized and gone to war. When Strategist Wang works up a potion to put one of the monsters to sleep, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see harpoons dripping with bright yellow liquid; the last major color missing from Yimou’s canvas.

The Great Wall surprised me. I went in expecting some goofy movie with Chinese vs. monsters and that’s exactly what I got, but it was done on a level usually reserved for more prestigious historical epics and fantasy adventures. The Great Wall is a B-movie done with A-talent who refused to slump for a paycheck. Not as eloquent or as dramatic as Yimou’s arthouse action movies like Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower but still clearly made by the same visual artist, The Great Wall is a feast for the eyes and a helluva good time at the movies.

Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10

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10 Responses to Great Wall, The (2016) Review

  1. san says:

    … The Great Wall fail in China why ? Cause in chinese movie , chinese people want their own to be heroes not some western guys. If Zhang just focus in chinese stars , i bet it will come to 300mil than just 179mil againts 150mil budget. And why fail in North America ? Cause the monsters and CGI suck so bad.

  2. Naika says:

    Kyle, thanks for sharing the review. I have some ‘political’ issues with the film obviously, but at least from what you’ve said, it’s entertaining to say the least.

    Now, I totally understand that The Great Wall may not be in the “whitewashing” category (thank god), but as an Asian guy who goes to this site to read people’s thoughts about Asian action cinema, I’m pretty dismayed about the notion against having “political” opinions at all about film, because film shouldn’t be free from the crosshairs of scrutiny (in general). I’ve seen plenty of white savior films in the martial arts genre and there’s nothing political about pointing these things out. These issues in our favorite action genre has been happening for DECADES and it’s only now that, thanks to the internet and the growing vocal fervor of film fans, we’re finally calling things out for what they are. I’m sure it wasn’t Zhang Yimou’s intention to have this reputation for the film, but using the “it’s mostly Chinese folks making the movie so it ain’t whitewashing / white-savior yada yada yada, so stop being a liberal snowflake” argument detracts from the fact that no one in the script writing team was Chinese, or had an acute background in Asian history to even advise on this film (Max Brooks, are you kidding me?). Oh, and adding Mr. Fusco won’t help here either.

    You can throw in the “thieving foreigners” defense as well, but people aren’t just up in arms about the film itself, but the general idea that in co-productions like this, Matt Damon’s on the promos, trailers and posters here in the general U.S., not Andy Lau, Jing Tian or Zhang Hanyu. They’re sidelined, and he isn’t. We know Matt brings in the cash, but other film genres and ventures (including modern ones) would’ve been better vessels for Chinese / American collaborations than some empty crowd pleaser that uses China’s greatest landmark as a marketing tool for a popcorn flick. Give me a film where the collaboration is in the writing team too, where Andy Lau isn’t hidden in the background of the poster and that the producers aren’t afraid to have their U.S. trailers show subs and even Asian people for that matter and I’ll be rooting for it all day long. Until then, the lesson learned for these collaborations should be to really get that collaborative spirit into the core of the writing team, take risks (hard in China I know, but get creative!) and seriously make sure that your very first, world premier ‘teaser’ of this film doesn’t ambiguously show Good Will Hunting in Chinese armor strutting around a thousands-of-years-old structure that has historical significance to a group of people who aren’t very visible from the get go.

    • Kyle Warner says:

      Thanks for your reply, Naika. You make so many great points. I felt it necessary to touch on the film’s controversies, but perhaps one paragraph could not hope to be sufficient. There is absolutely a discussion to be had about the merits of such a film as The Great Wall — again, I found it to be entertaining and well crafted, but that doesn’t make it without sin.

      I did not mean that one shouldn’t have any strong political feelings about the film. My comment on that subject was based on some fairly exact criticisms I’ve read, some of which are just not true. (For example, Matt Damon does not help build the wall.) I wish I had expanded on that comment some more because of course, there is absolutely room for political discussion on all films, especially movies that deal with race and other social issues. In the review I simply meant, that if (for example) one’s opinion was that it was a whitewashing of history then perhaps it’s worth seeing it first before coming to that conclusion. When I watched the film, I did so with some preconceived notions about what to expect and found it to be a different film overall.

      Your comments on the film’s marketing in the States are dead-on. I too would’ve liked to have seen Andy Lau more prominently featured on the posters and ads. And as mentioned in my review, Jing Tian is such a big part in the film that she easily could’ve shared top billing with Damon. I think the film’s marketing does the movie a disservice, as I don’t think the themes suggested in the trailers/posters are necessarily the perfect reflection of what transpires in the film. I too was bothered by this. Mostly I try to remove marketing from my views on a film, though, because how a film is marketed is rarely up to the filmmakers.

      The Great Wall, fun though it may be, could never be the perfect collaboration between Hollywood and China. When the end credits hit, I was surprised to see no Chinese talent in the screenwriting room. Chinese names were mostly regulated to producer roles. More than that, it’s a silly movie, about as far removed from a prestige picture that Yimou’s ever made (Damon made Stuck on You, so…). Your wish list for a better, more evenly shared collaboration between Hollywood and China is something I hope to see, too. In my review, I decided not to focus on what could’ve or should’ve been, because then I might have gone on all night.

      We… I… am always open to political discussion on a film’s qualities and faults. The Great Wall, in my opinion, has its share of both. I’m sorry if a few comments in my review led you to dismay. I’m on your side on the issues. I simply wanted to add one small voice of support for the film. Because flawed in production and marketing though it may be, it still resulted in a decent piece of blockbuster entertainment.

      Again, thank you for your reply.

      • Naika says:

        Thanks so much for replying Kyle. My response was not meant to be a disservice to the work that you all do at City on Fire. What you all do here is a massive undertaking that warrants so much merit that it would make all of us proud. The Great Wall, to its merit, is doing well globally and will eventually break even, so the hope might be that “Hey, this did alright, now let’s be brave and try tinkering with this or that a bit more.” I’m honored with response, and despite me being a bit of a grumpy gus, I hope that eventually we’ll see better blockbusters that will truly be both collaborative and innovative. Thanks for being upfront, and most importantly, for being a true gent!

        • Paul Bramhall says:

          Great review as always Kyle, and an interesting discussion to boot. I do feel that co-productions with China sit outside of the whole ‘whitewashing’ debate, and would argue that it’s a subject which could be broadened to the larger question of the way different nationalities are portrayed in Hollywood. When ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ came out in 2005, there was an uproar in Japan that Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh were given the lead roles, rather than Japanese actresses. The same thing is happening now with Scarlett Johansson in ‘Ghost in the Shell’. So with one movie you have Asian actresses, with the other you have an American actress…but both produced the same level of disdain for the same reason – the roles were given to non-Japanese. Does this scenario fall under the same principles that the current controversies revolve around?

          But back to China co-productions, I think any mention of artistic merit doesn’t really apply to these movies. Co-productions between Hollywood and China came about purely due to the massive box office returns that were identified through appealing to both demographics. One set of actors to appeal to the U.S., one set of actors to appeal to China. The notion that, regardless the size of the role, the lesser known Chinese performers would be used to promote the production stateside, doesn’t adhere to the business model, so is never going to happen.

          ‘The Great Wall’ is interesting as Jing Tian shares top-billing, however other cases have definitely been more extreme. China’s top-earning actress, Fan Bingbing, had a blink (ironically, also her characters name) and you’ll miss it role in ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’, however was used heavily to promote the movie in China. In an even more extreme case, her role in ‘Iron Man 3’ was shot exclusively for Chinese audiences, with her scenes not even included in the western release, again so she could be used to promote the movie in China. ‘The Great Wall’ is really no different in that respect.

          The only co-production I’ve really seen work in terms of being legitimately marketed based on it’s artistic merits, rather than its box office appeal, is Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s 2009 movie ‘I Come with the Rain’. The cast included Josh Hartnett (U.S.), Kimura Takuya (Japan), Lee Byung-hun (Korea), and Shawn Yue (Hong Kong).

          • Naika says:

            “But back to China co-productions, I think any mention of artistic merit doesn’t really apply to these movies. Co-productions between Hollywood and China came about purely due to the massive box office returns that were identified through appealing to both demographics. One set of actors to appeal to the U.S., one set of actors to appeal to China. The notion that, regardless the size of the role, the lesser known Chinese performers would be used to promote the production stateside, doesn’t adhere to the business model, so is never going to happen.”

            The point of my post isn’t that I disagree with you on this notion, it’s that this notion appears to be the only direction that Hollywood marketing wants to go to domestically. This is especially irksome, since, as Kyle points out, Jing Tian and her compatriots do a great deal in the film. If Andy Lau and Zhang Hanyu are window dressing, so be it, but if Jing Tian (regardless of her merits) is an instrumental element to the story, why not have her share top billing with Damon…in the U.S.? It’s true that producers can’t have control of marketing materials, but it’s 2017 folks. Asian folks are everywhere in the U.S.

            ” Does this scenario fall under the same principles that the current controversies revolve around? ”

            As for the portrayal of different nationalities in Hollywood, I agree completely. Although you could argue this scenario doesn’t fall into the same category, the fact of the matter is that from my perspective as an Asian-American, Hollywood historically doesn’t give a crap about how we’re portrayed, and that’s really the root of any whitewashing / nationality swapping uproar amongst Asians towards Hollywood. That’s the root of my post and the reason why I frequent the world of Asian cinema, not because ‘Asia gets it’, but because there’s a wealth of stories that actually have some tangible meaning for us. I can enjoy Seasonal film’s work on American Shaolin or Superfights just as much as I can enjoy films where Asians are central to the plots of Revenge of the Ninja, Rapid Fire or The Replacement Killers. When we and our culture is central in a film, it’s something magical for us because for most of our TV watching days in the U.S., we’re kinda not, and when we do show up on TV, it’s Marlowe. I’m sure you guys are sick of hearing us talk about this, but really Hollywood, it’s 2017. 2017!

            I’ve heard so much about I Come with the Rain and I hope more films will be daring enough when it comes to collaborations, and rest assured, when it happens, my money will go to those film straightaway. Until then, I’m hoping, like you guys, that we’ll see better collaborations and better films. I know it’s a business and that’s what drives these decisions, but like the Hong Kong stuntmen that held the front seat of an industry that we all love on this site, let’s see some risktaking on sides of the helm and see where it takes us.

  3. ColinJ says:

    I went into this expecting gorgeous junk and that’s exactly what I got.

    Matt Damon phones it in. Maybe the language barrier prevented Zhang from getting more out of him, but Damon’s earnest intensity is mostly absent.

  4. Travis E. says:

    “It certainly is a colorful war…”

    I thought this movie was a lot of fun. It was wonderful seeing Andy Lau and all these great Chinese actors in IMAX 3D; not something I can do everyday here in the states. Jing Tian stole the show. And also I agree with Kyle that this isn’t a ‘white savior’ movie. It doesn’t even follow the basic tropes. To explain further would spoil the movie, but let’s just say it was Jing’s skill set that was more important for the movie. Damon brought some skills too, but it wasn’t about him as much as it was about the team. Too bad it isn’t doing better over here. I’m afraid the bad US box office performance may reinforce negative opinions some studios have about releasing movies with lots of subtitles or with international casts nationwide and on the biggest screens. Like I said, not everyday for a movie like this…

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