Curzon's Corner: A not so “Great Wall”

If you’re looking for a movie that’s slightly boring, “The Great Wall” is the movie for you. You’d expect more from a movie about monsters attacking ancient China. Directed by Zhang Yimou, who is best known for “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” definitely brings his signature style to the film, but it’s not enough. “The Great Wall” boasts some impressive visuals but lacks a story or characters to hold it up.

Matt Damon plays a mercenary who travels to China in search of gunpowder. He and his partner, played by Pedro Pascal, come across the Great Wall under siege by monsters. They find Commander Lin, played by Jing Tian, and a lost knight, Sir Ballard played by Willem Dafoe. The characters are not developed at all. The first big battle happens 15 minutes into the movie. We don’t know who any of these people are, so we don’t really feel any sense of danger when they hack and slash the identical CGI monsters.

The story is an excuse for cool shots of the Great Wall. This makes the scenes between the action dull. The movie doesn’t even name Matt Damon’s character until about a half an hour in. Dafoe and Pascal have a subplot about stealing gunpowder but it goes nowhere. Dafoe is more of a plot device to explain why certain Chinese characters speak English. 

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All of the characters are given very little characterization. None of the chinese generals personality extends beyond what primary color there armor is. The dialogue consists of cliches with lines like “You came back ” and “Only so I can kill you myself.” It doesn’t help with the flat characters. 

Action should be in service of the story and every fight should propel it. But there isn’t much of a story in “The Great Wall.” What makes this so tragic is Yimou did this so well in “Hero.” It doesn’t help that the villains are all mindless monsters. It’s hard to be invested in the fight when all one side wants is food. The monsters are a hive-mind controlled by the queen. So if they kill the queen, they kill them all. It makes the fights feel extra pointless and the final battle feel anti-climactic.

The fighting does get repetitive. Centering all your battles around one area is not really conducive to making your fight scenes interesting and diverse. Oh look, they’re slashing the monsters again. But this time it’s foggy! The film does move the final battle to a city but by that time, it’s too little, too late. The opening fight scene is the greatest in terms of scale. After the initial wave of monster attacks, the fights all go downhill after that. 

It’s not laughable bad. The movie doesn’t have any bizarre filmmaking choices. There’s no, “what were they thinking” moment.  The story is pretty straight forward, but it’s not going to stick with you. It’ll be forgotten a minute after the credits roll. “The Great Wall’s” greatest weakness is just that it’s bland and boring.