Action Adventure

'The Great Wall' Film Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Damon

February 17, 2017Ben MK

First thing's first: The Great Wall is not a movie about President Donald Trump's plan to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It is, however, about one of the seven wonders of the world, presenting a colorful, alternate account of its history — and the mythical beasts it was designed to keep out.

Set 900 years ago, the story follows William Garin (Matt Damon, boasting a subtle, befuddling accent), an archer who finds himself out of his element when he and his comrade-in-arms, swordsman Pero Tovar (Game of Thrones' Pedro Pascal), are taken prisoner at the Great Wall. Caught in the middle of a centuries-old conflict between the defenders of the Wall — an army 100,000 strong, dubbed The Nameless Order — and an enemy the likes of which he has never seen, William faces a crucial decision: rise as a savior of humanity, or fall as a footnote to history.

Directed by Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers) and starring a cast of predominantly Chinese actors — including Andy Lau (the Infernal Affairs trilogy), Jing Tian (Police Story: Lockdown), Hanyu Zhang (Bodyguards and Assassins), and pop stars Lu Han and Junkai Wang — The Great Wall marks China's largest ever cinematic undertaking. It's a fact that will no doubt help carry the movie to new heights at the country's box office; but given that most of the actors aren't household names internationally, will that hamper its success otherwise?

Working in the film's favor is Damon, who, along with the criminally underused Willem Dafoe, brings instant name recognition for Western audiences. However, the spectacular visuals also proves to be a major selling point, thanks to the vibrant costume design (each of The Nameless Order's five corps is clad in its own elaborate and distinctive armor), not to mention the production design and VFX by WETA Workshop and ILM Far East, which evoke an Eastern-themed version of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, the epic scope of which rivals the Great Wall itself.

The script, on the other hand, a joint effort by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy, is basic at best. A retreading of the tried-and-true hero's journey, it not only borrows inspiration from Lord of the Rings and The Last Samurai, but also 47 Ronin and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, a reflection of the fact that, while Gilroy may have helped pen hits like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the Bourne series, the former have been responsible for such misfires as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Of course, The Great Wall is more than just a spectacle-filled, fantasy-inspired re-imagining of historical legend; it's also quite literally the embodiment of the very creative and financial partnership Hollywood has been so diligently forging with its distant neighbors to the East for the past several years. In that respect, the movie is as much about bringing together individuals united towards a common goal as it is about protecting oneself from foreign threats. Now that's a topic that the politicians of today could certainly use a lesson or two about.

The Great Wall releases February 17th, 2017 from Universal Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence. Its runtime is 1 Hr. 43 Mins.

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