The Good: Special effects, Good performances, Interesting characters
The Bad: Very simple plot
The Basics: The Great Wall is a visually-engaging film that is very simple.
With the popularity of Game Of Thrones on HBO and the end of the marketable Middle Earth books, moviegoers are looking for the next big mythical world to emotionally invest in. The Great Wall implicitly makes the argument that ancient China is a setting worth exploring. The Great Wall blends history and mythology, character and special effects to create a story of heroism that is likely to appeal to those who love fantasy.
The Great Wall is not as sprawling or complicated as Warcraft (reviewed here!) and in some ways that makes it much more accessible. Despite the flash and physical scope of the film, The Great Wall is essentially a simple siege story with a very basic morality aspect thrown in. The lack of complexity does not make The Great Wall bad, though, but it is easy to get swept away by the armor and sprawling mountains and come to believe the film is bigger than it actually is.
Opening with the disclaimer that this is one of the legends of the Great Wall, William Garin is being chased on horseback through the desert with his comrades and are only able to evade their pursuers through luck and cunning. Garin and his team of six men (down by twenty from when the expedition began) are searching for gunpowder, which they have only heard of as rumor and at night, their camp is attacked by something they do not recognize and only see clearly in the amputated limb one leaves behind. Garin and Pero Tovar survive the fight with the creature and are scouting when they are attacked again by riders. They are corralled to the Great Wall, where military forces are defending China. After being interrogated by Lin Mei, a general who speaks English thanks to the tutelage of Sir Ballard, they are imprisoned and brought to the top of the Great Wall.
There, they witness an attack on the Wall by massive reptiles. Freed from their bonds during the fight, Garin and Tovar take down a couple of the creatures and earn the begrudging respect of Lin Mei. The Westerners learn of the Taotie, whose queen breeds an army that attacks every sixty years and whose legions now threaten the capital city. With its population, the military leaders believe that the Queen Taotie will be able to breed enough soldiers to cover the entire Earth, wiping out humanity. After a nighttime attack kills the leader of the army, Lin Mei is promoted and she agrees to try Garin's idea, which is to capture a Taotie to find the creatures' weaknesses. While the military captures a Taotie soldier, Sir Ballard and Tovar flee the Great Wall with a supply of "black powder." Despite immediately mistrusting Garin, Lin Mei is convinced that his desire to stay and fight the Taotie is legitimate. Together, Lin Mei and William Garin mount a daring expedition to find the queen and kill her to eliminate the threat the Taotie represent to Earth!'
The Great Wall very quickly sets up obvious dialectics. William Garin is a mercenary, while Lin Mei fights for the common good of her people; Garin distrusts everyone, Lin Mei survives because she can trust her soldiers and they trust her. Even the adversaries are set up as part of a very simple conflict; the emperor is using his army to protect China and the world; the Taotie Queen is an invader who fell from the sky and threatens to overwhelm the world with her mindless drones.
The plot of The Great Wall is similarly simple. The warriors must repel the Taotie in order to save the kingdom. William Garin and Pero Tovar must choose to join their fight or steal the black powder and flee the Wall with it. So, it is somewhat unsurprising that the film offers both options; Garin takes the high road, Tovar chooses avarice. Thematically, there is something very unsatisfying about the film's resolution, but in general terms, the dialectics are well-established and decently executed.
The characters in The Great Wall play out like very simple archetypes, but they are well-performed by Matt Damon (Garin), Tian Jing (Lin Mei), and Pedro Pascal (Pero Tovar). It is weird seeing Willem Dafoe in such a monolithic supporting role as he is in The Great Wall, where he plays Sir Ballard, but he makes the most of it. Tian Jing dominates the screen as Lin Mei; she plays the military leader with a precision and control of her body language and tone that make it entirely believable that she could rise to such a position of power. Damon is good as Garin, but he takes a back seat to Jing in every scene they share; he plays the mercenary fine (albeit without the charisma of, say, Han Solo), but she plays the military leader masterfully.
The effects in The Great Wall are good. I found the waves of Taotie attacking to get a bit repetitive-feeling, but they are well-rendered. Between the realistic rendition of the Taotie and the brightly colored armor for the various divisions within the army, The Great Wall looks wonderful.
The Great Wall is a stylish-looking film that makes a simple story seem exceptional and that makes for enjoyable, if not objectively incredible, movie.
For other movies currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
War On Everyone
Underworld: Blood Wars
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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