Film Review: Matt Damon in ‘The Great Wall’

Matt Damon The Great Wall
Universal

Matt Damon doesn't save China in this capably directed but generic fantasy spectacle extolling Chinese culture and military excellence.

Commanding China’s most expensive production, with probably the biggest input from Hollywood talent ever, blockbuster Chinese director Zhang Yimou capably gives period fantasy-action “The Great Wall” the look and feel of a Hollywood blockbuster, but his signature visual dazzle, his gift for depicting delicate relationships and throbbing passions are trampled by dead-serious epic aspirations.

Those who ranted against the project as another case of Hollywood “whitewashing” in which Matt Damon saves China from dragons may have to bite their tongue, for his character, a mercenary soldier who stumbles into an elite corps fighting mythical beasts, spends the course of the film being humbled, out-smarted, and re-educated in Chinese virtues of bravery, selflessness, discipline, and invention. In between the cultural cheerleading, there are some highly watchable war and monster spectacles, though none so original or breathtaking as to stop one from associating them with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy or its imitators.

With a reported $150 million budget, the film rolls out in China mid-December with little competition in cinemas, boosted by a massive marketing campaign, which should draw full houses in the first week at least — though “The Great Wall” has a lot to recoup and will be hard-pressed to beat Stephen Chow’s charmingly lo-tech romantic fantasy “The Mermaid,” which still holds the record as China’s top-grossing film with nearly $489 million. While its marriage of Hollywood production values with Asian elements may skew the film toward a more culturally open-minded audience, the generic storytelling and lack of iconic characters will make it a tough sell stateside when Universal releases it on Feb. 17.

The film opens like a spaghetti western in the Gobi Desert, as mercenary soldiers William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Chilean-born actor Pedro Pascal from “Game of Thrones”) flee the attack of Khitans, and Damon’s character procures the claw of an unknown creature by fluke. They arrive at a fortress on one segment of the Great Wall and are captured by the Nameless Order, an elite army led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) to fight Taotie, ravenous beasts that rise locust-like from the nearby Jade Mountain every 60 years to devour humans and everything else in their wake.

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The mechanical screenplay keeps the battles coming with accelerating size and peril. Shot with sweeping agility by Stuart Dryburgh (“Alice Through the Looking Glass”) and Zhang regular Zhao Xiaoding, using the Arri Alexa 65 and other state-of-the-art cameras, images of leaping movement appear with extraordinary sharpness in the 3D IMAX format. As the entire horde lays siege to two pagodas, the finale evinces the raw threat of a zombie apocalypse while the resplendent colored glass windows inside the pagodas form a romantic and distinctly Chinese backdrop.

Yet, with rapid-fire editing by Mary Jo Markey (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) and Craig Wood (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise), viewers are also overwhelmed by the inability to take in everything before the film abruptly lulls again to make room for more exposition and drama. This is especially true in an otherwise gripping setpiece in which Garin helps the soldiers capture a live Taotie, as the intricate human offensives are clouded by fog and dust.

Though the film plays with the idea that China’s Great Wall may have been erected to keep out invaders more intimidating than mere mortals, the idea isn’t necessarily original, having already inspired the 2009 Japanese manga “Attack on Titan,” which depicts a community that has built concentric walls to ward off man-eating giants. The Nameless Order, with its five corps named after and touting the combat styles of the crane, bear, eagle, deer, and tiger, resembles the three-tiered military in “Titan.” (In particular, the Crane Corps, made up of all-female aerialists, swing around in a tethering system that invites close parallels with the “Vertical Maneuvering Equipment” in “Titan.”)

That wouldn’t be such a problem if Zhang or his scribes had devoted even a smidgen of time to giving the respective commanders identities or backstories. Instead, though they are played by recognized actors (Eddie Peng, Kenny Lin Gengxin) with proven ability and charisma, these characters are just glorified cameos, stomping around in heavy armor looking angry or worried or both. Since most of the Chinese characters are portrayed as flawless paragons, they end up looking like cardboard cut-outs with no emotional dimension. This makes former K-pop idol Lu Han, with his characteristic boyish coyness, stand out as a cowardly foot soldier whose valor grows through his friendship with Garin.

The only character who hogs the spotlight is Lin Mae (Jing Tian), commander of the Crane Corps, as she’s the one who impresses Garin with the Chinese people’s altruism in fighting not for money, but for the salvation of humankind. Perhaps the sheer amount of English dialogue constrains her performance, but Jing is completely wooden in her exchanges with Damon, even though Lin and Garin are supposed to develop a grudging respect and warmth for each other. Their dynamic feels especially awkward in static close-ups (and hers are numerous), when she’s most expressionless.

It’s heartening that a film with European protagonists doesn’t cave to the controversial “white savior” syndrome seen in movies such as “Forbidden Kingdom.” But Damon’s role as a money-grubbing, lying, and smelly foreign mercenary is dubiously similar to the boozy, uncouth, opportunist mortician Christian Bale played in Zhang’s “The Flowers of War,” and he too is schooled in Chinese values of self-sacrifice by a coterie of “professional” women. Given very little complexity to round out his character, Damon forges a presence in the scenes of physical exertion, but don’t expect any award nominations.

As for his selfish and unlikable sidekick, Pascal’s lines fall flat as comic relief and sound worse in translation, while a gaunt-looking Willem Dafoe is wasted as a minor villain.

Zhang’s bold use of color schemes and lustrous lighting, notably in “Curse of the Golden Flower” or “Hero” are subdued by “Memoirs of a Geisha” production designer John Myhre’s stately contributions, which avoid chinoiserie in favor of subtle Chinese period details that most viewers will overlook in the flurry of action. And despite much being made of the Taotie, which were conceived from ancient Chinese mythology and invested with a philosophical dimension as the symbol and scourge of greed, their form and movement are not so distinct from Orcs or mini-Godzillas.

First announced in August 2011 as a English-speaking tentpole project to kickstart Legendary East, the new Chinese arm of Legendary Pictures (now acquired by China’s Wanda Media), “The Great Wall” builds on such east-west collaborations as “Dragon Blade” and the Justin Lin-produced “Hollywood Adventures.” Early on, the project was to be helmed by “The Last Samurai” director Edward Zwick, who planned to co-write the script with Marshall Herskovitz, working from a concept from Legendary CEO Thomas Tull and “World War Z” author Max Brooks. Henry Cavill, Benjamin Walker, and Zhang Ziyi were at one time attached to star, though the final form was written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy, featuring more Mandarin dialogue and a bigger proportion of Chinese cast.

Film Review: Matt Damon in 'The Great Wall'

Reviewed at UA KK Mall, Shenzhen, China, Feb. 15, 2016. Running time: 104 MIN. Original Title: "Chang cheng."

Production

(China-U.S.) A China Film Co.,Wuzhou Distribution,  (in China), Universal Pictures (in U.S.) release of a China Film Co., Le Vision Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures presentation of a Legendary Pictures, Atlas Entertainment production. (International sales: Universal Pictures, Los Angeles.) Produced by Thomas Tull, Charles Roven, Jon Jashni, Peter Loehr. Executive producers, Jillian Share, Alex Gartner, E. Bennett Walsh. Co-producers, Yong Er, Eric Hedayat, Alex Hedlund.

Crew

Directed by Zhang Yimou. Screenplay, Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy based on the story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Stuart Dryburgh, Zhao Xiaoding; editors, Mary Jo Markey, Craig Wood.

With

Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng, Lu Han, Lin Gengxin, Junkai Wang, Zheng Kai, Cheney Chen, Xuan Huang, Yu Xintian, Liu Qiong. (Mandarin, English dialogue)

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  1. Was The Great Wall, filmed using the Great Wall of China?

    I thought the movie was good, but the story was a bit bland at times, and the female lead was a bit stiff.
    The costumes and scenery, was beautiful. The special effects were good and for the most part very good.
    Matt Damon’s part and his character was played well. He is a very polished actor, so even though the female lead lacked many times, to be believable, Matt Damon always was believable.
    On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give it a 6. Better writing, and a better female lead, would have made this movie more believable. ☺

  2. Biblical leaders of prehistory are preeminently people of color portrayed ad infinitum by white actors well on display by Hollywood epic motion pictures since the industry was born. A wandering warrior who happens to be white is expected in a film required to make a certain dollar percentage while overcoming “subtitles” when viewed by American audiences.

  3. Grady Coleman III says:

    I’m happy to see Asian people object to this movie. For years and years white people have been trying to place themselves in Asian culture. The white/Asian connection propaganda machine has been at full power for years. In the past the people didn’t have the internet to object and collectively protest whitewashed Hollywood media. Now white people are learning that they dont have the influence or power that they assumed they had. It’s a hard pill for white people and Asian followers of white people to swallow but we need white people as a whole to evolve with the rest of us. White people…. welcome back to reality!

  4. mike says:

    William garin before the great wall story ???

  5. Yaakob says:

    i have watched the movie and i am going to watch it again in imax 3d. I disagree with this review. this is actually a very good movie. it could be better if the director add another 5 minutes to make the taotie ambushed more meaningful. matt gave a good performance. in my honest opinion, i would prefer if all the actors speak english, then i need not read the subtitles.

  6. nice, finally here is a reviewer, who saw what inspired the film (attack on titan)…, Hollywood again taking a cool/fresh style (from animes/mangas), the US film mass viewers don’t know well and make it into blockbuster… (been happening since Matrix)

  7. Steph says:

    i can’t believe luhan is going to save this movie from flopping

  8. Annick_aur says:

    For all the bigots whining that this is somehow a propaganda effort from the commies in the form of a movie, I’d like to point out all contributors to the screenplay are American. No one is coming to infringe on your precious values.

  9. Walao says:

    Reading the comments reeking of ignorant bigotry, I can now finally come to terms as to how Trump got elected.

  10. If you think the concern over China taking over Hollywood is “overblown,” you’re not paying attention to what the Chinese themselves have specifically stated is their goal. State-funded, state-managed, and/or state-affiliated actors (meaning in this case individuals or companies serving the goals of the central party) are investing heavily in 1) exchanging funding for positive (often superior) and increasingly-frequently outsized portrayals of Chinese cities and landscape; morals; political ideology; economic progress; military capability; intellect; and more; 2) purchases of American studios, with a goal of purchasing one or more of the major studies; 3) in order to take control of major American channels of entertainment (first) and other forms of communication (later) and use those channels to fuse entertainment and news with state-sponsored messaging designed to oppose and diminish the United States (specifically) and the West (broadly) as part of its strategic plan to become a global hegemon.

    Again, this is stated in a number of English-language interviews with Wanda and others, and is openly stated in Chinese-language pieces. Not only is this not getting coverage in the United States, but the response from the American entertainment sector so far has been… open arms, agreement, and (just as bad) explaining away of concerns. “Oh gosh, they’re not trying to do that, they just want to provide their burgeoning entertainment market with content!”

    It’s hard to understand if we’re just this short-sighted and greedy, or if we’re just this naive, or if we just truly welcome this arm of direct challenge to American national interest.

  11. Cannibo says:

    I’ve watched the movie. Twice. Pascal’s character is very likable to me.

  12. Jay says:

    Is Matt Damon the protagonist? Is the story about him and does he drive the action? Or, is he a member of an ensemble cast in a fantasy film that includes monsters and The Great Wall of China as characters? Given the breadth of this article I’m not sure who’s doing what to whom.

  13. Philster says:

    I’ve always thought that all the talk about China taking over Hollywood was overblown. Great, so they bought themselves a propaganda movie. Other than Chinese people, who’s going to see it? The Chinese people get to see propaganda movies all the time; this one just happens to be more expensive, that’s all. I’m not sure “more expensive” equals “more effective.”

  14. Judi travers says:

    Perhaps Mr Damon is feeling the backlash BOYCOTT of his “work” due to his alt left politics. Ha ha!!!

  15. richard says:

    Only pea brained sheeple would pay any attention whatsoever to the sewage that is hollycrap.

  16. twsiebert says:

    Intrigued by this, even if it mostly sucks. I’ll probably pay to check it out.

  17. Bert says:

    Matt Damon!

  18. Namey Name says:

    “spends the course of the film being humbled, out-smarted, and re-educated in Chinese virtues of bravery, selflessness, discipline, and invention”

    Meanwhile back in the real world, Trump is about to school the Chinese and “re-educate” them on capitalism. But that’s ok snowflakes, live out your fantasies at the movies. LOL!!!

  19. Jeffrey Gee says:

    Boycott Matt Damon’s dumb ass and the now China owned Hollyweird. This is a Chinese funded/made film BTW from Hollywood!

  20. Bill H says:

    I say this as just a fantasy… nuke Hollywood. We’re just returning the love. Signed, a deplorable.

  21. Eric Jones says:

    Anyone who pays $13 and wastes 2 hours of their life to see this should be evaluated for mental deficiencies. It won’t be too long before Matt Damon is relegated to doing Saturday morning infomercials and reality TV.

  22. John Armstrong says:

    I am overjoyed that Matt Damon came out with this movie – so I can boycott it – and – tell my friends and family to do likewise. He is a working member of the Democrat party now. If he keeps his political views to himself – i do not care what his political views are – but – when he openly campaigns – i stop going to see his “stuff”

    • Kristi A Jones says:

      Another potato head with no common sense. You’re “boycotting” Matt Damon because he doesn’t agree with your political views? STUPID. Go enjoy the movie (which is excellent, by the way) and get over yourself. Another Trump cult member hard at work sucking down as much of that #Hitlerwannabe’s Kool-Aid as possible.

  23. Rambo says:

    I’m so sick of Hollywood.

  24. But Damon has already cashed the BIG check he got and I haven’t gone to a Damon film in years.

  25. Kala says:

    Great Wall Crumbles, Damon falls flat

  26. Lib Serum says:

    This is John Wayne “Genghis Khan” all over again. Damon doesn’t fit in that time or that suit. Dumb.

  27. Pebo says:

    Just seems like Chinese propaganda efforts to me. It’s no secret that they have been investing in Hollywood lately to secure public opinion in their favor. Little effort to disquise it. Disappointing really.

  28. Bob Dobbs. Jr says:

    More pandering to get into the chinese market, nothing to see here, not worth my time. Hollyweird has been making movies so bad, they cant even get people to pirate them anymore.

  29. WASP and Damned Proud of It says:

    How sick to f/*/c/k/ing death we are of seeing movies that depict Americans as cultural bunglers who need to be humbled, humiliated, and re-educated by so-called “superior” cultures.

    If you’re allowed to be proud of your third world toilet culture, then I’m cool to say I’m proud of white-dominant, Western culture here in the U.S..

    I’ll pass (wouldn’t give a dime to America-hater Damon, anyway).

    • Who? says:

      You’ve probably purchased a bunch of Chinese-made crap anyways, so somebody over there is making money over your spending. Pretending that China is nothing more than a third world toilet country is an overly simplistic view.

      But yeah, this movie looks like junk.

  30. From the review, this is just Chinese government propaganda, which won’t go over well outside that country, if there. While China made a few discoveries 2,000 or 3,000 years ago it languished in near total poverty and was utterly powerless until it adopted Western technology, and they still innovate anything in high technology. All their weapons come from spying on the U.S.
    The Chinese and most other societies lack the concept of individual freedom over the power of the state. Preach that in China and you’d get thrown into jail so fast.

    • WH says:

      A few discoveries is an understatement. Ancient China was one of the most powerful, technological advance, and richest civilizations in the world, a fact supported by western and eastern historians. Their armies out numbered their western continental peers in the same period by many folds. They used gun powdered weapons and devices long before the west even knew what it was. Ancient China was so far ahead of the west that Matt Damon’s character had go to China to steal technological goods, gunpowder. In fact, China was very much a mythical paradise to Europeans that they thought Marco Polo was lying about reaching China.

      It is true pre modern China, Mao Zedong era, was one china’s bleaker times. It had more to do with after effects of war, power struggle and consolidation of power. The ruling party had tp keep overall country in manageable state, poor, uneducated, and promote farmers and soldiers over scholars. The previous republic of China actually had a better economic condition than the Mao Zedong era.

      After Mao Zedong had died, the China began to gradually regain her power through the decades. It is an indisputable fact that present China is one of the world’s powerhouses.

      “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” –Sun Tzu.

      • Jim Atkins says:

        >”China is so great and powerful and amazing and has 5 billion years of history and bla bla”

        I wish I had a nickel for every time I had to hear about China’s 5000 years of history and yadda yadda yadda.

        That didn’t stop the Manchurians from conquering China, did it? I didn’t know this until recently but the iconic half-shaven pig-tail Chinese hairstyle was something that was forced upon the entire Chinese population by the Manchurian conquerors. The Chinese were basically enslaved by those Manchurians for hundreds of years until the end of the 20th century.

    • Cannibo says:

      It’s true that we Chinese highly value collectivism lol.

  31. GC says:

    America hater matt damon (see howard zinn) is so appropriate for the role of western bungler, uncouth man of violence needed to be taught a lesson by the Eastern (Chinese) funded movie…ok.

    Folks, expect more movies funded by Eastern interests to depict America (the west) in a less than favorable light. I guess this big movie starring an actor who hates the values of traditional America is the first one out of the gate.

    Will sit this one out. NO THANKS.

    • Cannibo says:

      At the same time, some Chinese audience are complaining why we Chinese need to be saved by a westerner in this movie. I can hear the screenwriters sighing. LOL.

  32. snafubar says:

    Matt Damon ridiculed Donald Trump about running a campaign on building a wall to keep the invaders out …then stars in a movie about a wall built to keep invaders out.

    I guess walls are OK to Matt Damon as long as they’re not built on the US border.

    The irony and hypocrisy are breathtaking.

    • Kristi A Jones says:

      You do realize this is a MOVIE…..for ENTERTAINMENT purposes, don’t you? Are all you Trump crybabies the same? Movies are for enjoyment. If you don’t like the movie – ok. If you’re going to bash it without seeing it because of a political view, you’re just plain stupid. Like the previous comments say, your stupidity is breathtaking. What a putz.

    • reality check says:

      you realize this is about a wall to keep out FICTITIOUS monsters, right? Your stupidity is breathtaking.

      • snafubar says:

        Of course they’re fictitious monsters. We must be politically correct, right comrade?

        Drink the kool aid deep.

    • asdfsadfasdf says:

      good one …

      same goes with the like of Zuckerberg, who razed his neighborhood to build a wall around his castle …

  33. Sam says:

    Hollywood is being bought up by China. Do you honestly think that crap films like this are a coincidence?? China will be using Hollywood as their propaganda factory. I no longer waste my money on this rubbish.

  34. Sanjeet Veen says:

    I watched the trailer …. I love the trailer beautiful, must watch this movie amazing…

  35. iFixr says:

    The Great Wall is easily the least interesting and involving blockbuster of the respective careers of both its director and star.

  36. Canes58 says:

    i saw the preview! i was waiting for jet li to come out on his clay chariot breathing fire like the godawful mummy 3! we all remember that! lol

  37. Nick65 says:

    Just more brainwashing about how great china is instead of the communist totalitarians who killed over 80 million of their own people and trample liberty and human rights. Ain’t buying it.

  38. williampenn says:

    Actors are experts on everything. We really need to listen.

  39. sailordude says:

    It’s funny that Trump is going to be President after running on building a wall. Ironic isn’t it?

    • Tunneling could be big business.

      • not relevant says:

        it’s all a ploy to get el chapo to go straight and limit the pressure of the southern states from illegal drug trafficking

      • GozieBoy says:

        Any wall will have ground sonar to easily detect any tunneling. Technology, Stevie, it’s not just a physical wall!

    • Canes58 says:

      look at this way! if he does come through think of all the jobs for americans building it! we just lasted 8 years of a jobless recovery those phony monthly numbers of fake news! over 94 million who went off the grid as the unemployment ran out!

  40. Hollyweird just loves to lecture the west by putting eastern cultures on display as superior.

  41. Johnny Galt says:

    Matt Damon and extolling Chinese exellence. What could go wrong?

  42. liberals are idiots says:

    Why aren’t the hollyweird leftists upset with the racist Chinese for building a Great Wall to keep uninvited foreigners out of their country?

    Trump 2020 – Build That Wall!

    • American says:

      Excellent question ‘liberals are idiots,’ They should have threw open their borders and welcomed the invading mongols making sure to scream at everyone that protested they were racist, misogynistic, homophobic bigots.

  43. Suibne Geilt says:

    the last bourne movie was one of the biggest pieces of crap ever relleased…he didn’t care….why would he care about a whole wall of crap.

  44. calimani says:

    So in the movie, whose military technology did the thieving Chi-Com rats steal to create their supposed “elite” force?

  45. Phil says:

    Just more pathetic, contrived hype to sell tickets

  46. Jack says:

    How is Forbidden Kingdom different from The Great Wall and Flowers of War? Forbidden Kingdom is an American movie. The Great Wall and Flowers of War are Chinese movies. This is a hugely important distinction. As the reviewer points out, those who were quick to accuse of ‘whitewashing’ were thinking of this movie they way they would an American film, when the dynamics in play around a Chinese project are quite different. This movie will probably do very poorly at the US box office, but that was likely never its goal; it’s made for a Chinese audience. This is the kind of movie that audience wants to see, Damon included.

    • not relevant says:

      so is it fair game to criticize it for having a white buffoon in it? Personally I’m fine with that as long as it doesn’t devolve into a virtue signaling race to the bottom to fetch the most condescending rearrangement of “finally a movie has the balls to put the white male cis-het oppressor in it’s place”

  47. Harley Robert says:

    With shocking regularity, films depict China or Chinese officials as being direct or indirect heroes whose morality and intellect save the world (e.g., “Arrival”) or solve the problem. These plot devices are naked efforts to obtain exhibition in China and/or reflect that Chinese money helped to finance the film. Sickening and pandering on breathless scale. I hope Matt got a big paycheck for this.

    • Luke says:

      Actually, in Arrival it is the complete opposite! Chinese hot headed-ness threatens world destruction! A calm American scientist saved the day. Which is why Arrival is a masterpiece.

  48. Dunstan says:

    This sounds completely coma-inducing.

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