The Great Wall (2016)

  • Time: 103 min
  • Genre: Action | Adventure | Fantasy
  • Director: Yimou Zhang
  • Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe


When a mercenary warrior (Matt Damon) is imprisoned within the Great Wall, he discovers the mystery behind one of the greatest wonders of the world. As wave after wave of marauding beasts besiege the massive structure, his quest for fortune turns into a journey toward heroism as he joins a huge army of elite warriors to confront the unimaginable and seemingly unstoppable force.

One review

  • A Chinese-Hollywood co-production with a reported $150 million budget (making it the most expensive film made in China), The Great Wall is an often entertaining action-adventure epic whose visual extravagance often successfully masks glaring deficiencies in narrative logic and characterisation.

    Set during the Song Dynasty, director Zhang Yimou’s first predominantly English-language effort, the film purports to tell one of the legends surrounding the Great Wall, an impressive series of fortifications spanning over 5500 miles and taking 1700 years to build. Certainly the story that unfolds would be difficult to digest as historical fact, considering that it deals with phantasmic creatures called Taotie that come around once 60 years to feed on the human flesh that strengthen the numbers of their species.

    Before one gets a better look at the beasts, however, audiences are introduced to mercenaries William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) as they’re chased across the Gobi Desert by a horde of Khitan bandits. Seeking shelter in a cave, William and Pero encounter an unseen monster, whose hand William manages to cut off. The next day, they stumble upon a fortress situated in one part of the Great Wall and are taken prisoner by the Chinese soldiers. They are soon introduced to the rest of the film’s key players: General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Commander Lin (Jing Tian), and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), all of whom marvel over how William was able to get so close to the monster. More importantly, the presence of the monster alerts them that the attack, which they had been expecting, is far earlier than they anticipated.

    Yimou quickly gets to the first of the film’s impressive action sequences as the Great Wall is besieged by a swarm of Taoties. Scale and precision have always been the hallmarks of the Chinese (remember the shock and awe from the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony?), and Yimou unleashes everything in his arsenal for a breathtaking extravaganza of colour-coordinated troops preparing for and engaging in battle with the fearsome creatures. As the bound William and Pero witness, each troop has been rigorously trained in their special skill: the Eagles are the archers, the Tigers in catapulting burning rocks, the Bears are the foot soldiers whilst the Deers are the cavalry. Most impressive of all are Lin’s all-female Cranes, who bungee-jump off the Great Wall in order to spear the monsters below.

    When the film relegates itself to its numerous action sequences, viewer interest is heavily engaged. It’s thrilling to watch such spectacle unfold on the screen. Yet the minute it focuses on its barely sketched characters, it quickly deflates as its overly spelled-out message of the importance of trust is pushed to the forefront. There’s not much to say about the actors, since they don’t have much to work with and they are inevitably overwhelmed by the surroundings and special effects. Not even Damon can sell the character of William or his transition from black powder-seeking mercenary who has managed to survive by not trusting anyone to someone who would sacrifice his freedom in order to help the Chinese defend the Great Wall.

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