The Great Wall - Review : DJ MACK

One of the biggest movies from China last year, director Zhang Yimou ('House of Flying Daggers') ties up Hollywood production values with Asian sensibilities to bring to life, one of the countless 'legends' about the staggering Great Wall of China in this movie - an epic fantasy adventure about mythical creatures that live in the North beyond the Wall who are out to annihilate the whole world - with the Wall and the Nameless order of brave, selfless soldiers the only protection against them.
The story arc brings nothing new - we've seen the barbarian from the west joining in on the fight to save the world, bringing his own cunning war tactics and selfless bravery to the fore in an Eastern setting. So the charismatic Matt Damon, William, a mercenary running from his past and in search of the elusive 'black rock' that could reverse his own down-in-the-dumps fortune, stumbles onto the Wall and the mysterious war that the world doesn't know. The Nameless order conscripted to patrol the wall and repel the advances of this intelligent race of demoniacal beasts ( Think of Orcs crossed up with Dinosaurs that communicate through their vibrating skins that trumpet complex signals!) that run riot, every sixty years. Will gradually gets indoctrinated to the ways of the soldiers, Trust or xin-ren forming the basis of his war, rather than money. The story leaps forward, in battle sequences, accelerating in size, scope and peril. Stakes keep mounting as the Tao-tie rise, locusts-like, swarming up the battle-ramparts of the wall, cunning and bestial at the same time, aiming to wreck havoc and eat anything up for the sake of their Queen.
The warfare sequences that forms the majority of the movie, is simply astounding. The fantasy elements, the inventiveness of the weaponry, the overall visual experience is a definite treat. Creative, stunning and very smooth. The drama however, falls a bit flat as the story-line follows predictable patterns and is a very familiar take on the monster-story. Matt Damon brings in depth and character yes, but too little, too late. The Chinese commanders remain just cardboard cut-outs with no backstories. There are brief moments of levity - especially the bonding between Matt and Pedro Pascal ( Oberyn Martell from the Game of Thrones), his buddy from the mercenary days whose sole aim is to get the black rock and flee back to his own country. This saves the movie from being a total expressionless disaster. Jing Tiang who plays the commander of the Crane Corps ( an all-female aerial combat specialists troop who take the first fight to the monsters, free-falling and diving down the ramparts of the Wall, armed with spears and harpoons! This by the way, was fucking awesome!) has the biggest story-arc among the Commanders and is the sole one, who can speak English and thus, connect to the barbarian and show him the ways of 'Xin-Ren' - and redeem his soul. But even she, appears wooden and stoic in close-up frames.
But for the watered down screenplay that tries to please a global audience, this Chinese visual spectacle would have been a wonderful import to the West. There is this climax scene, set in the Capital of the Kingdom as the monsters are running amok, the threat of a zombie apocalypse imminent and there is resplendent colored glass windows shattering inside these tall pagodas even as white balloons full of soldiers in the air, are exploding outside. This is so distinctly romantic - and Chinese. Only the Chinese can pull this off. If you must see, then go. Not for Matt Damon but for some spectacular action set-pieces that combines Wuxia with Game of Thrones.