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The Great Wall review: Matt Damon reluctantly helps out a Chinese army in this enjoyable and lavish monster yarn.

The Great Wall review by Luke Ryan Baldock, February 2017.

The Great Wall review

There’s no escaping the PC uproar over Matt Damon’s casting in The Great Wall. It’s been the basis for a sea of unending jokes based around whitewashing. Although whitewashing has been a serious issue for years in Hollywood, Damon’s casting is actually progressive. Being a Chinese/USA co-production that employs a lot of Chinese talent; there are fewer Chinese films with non-Chinese leads, than there are Hollywood films with non-white leads. So let’s celebrate rather than moan. It’s certainly not the same as Tom Cruise taking a lead in The Last Samurai or Tilda Swinton’s divisive casting in Doctor Strange. It’s merely a big budget Chinese/USA co-production that wants to get that Western dollar.

Set during the Song dynasty, Damon plays William, a Western traveller out to find the legendary ‘black powder’ that could be used as a destructive weapon. Along with his righthand man Tovar (Pedro Pascal), the two stumble across the titular great wall after having slayed an unidentifiable beast. Once on the wall they discover that China must protect themselves and do battle with a race of lizard like monsters every 60 years. Lead by General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), the two foreigners prove themselves in battle, but must decide whether to fight in the battle or make off with the black powder they came for.

The Great Wall review

The Great Wall will no doubt find it hard to find its perfect audience. Helmed by legendary filmmaker Zhang Yimou – whose earlier efforts such as The Road Home, Not One Less, and Happy Times are a thousand miles away from the illustrious and operatic wuxia films, such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers, that made his name internationally – The Great Wall is a pretty simple monster movie with a greater eye for detail in the production design. The film is beautiful, with stunning brightly coloured costumes being the stand out. Each division of the wall’s army is colour coded in bright blue, yellow, red etc. It cements the film as a more fantastical piece, and although the action scenes are incredible on a big screen, they don’t have the poetic elegance of Yimou’s martial arts classics. The film essentially balances a Hollywood script courtesy of Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Jason Bourne’s Tony Gilroy, with the vision of a Chinese artist.

Damon is fine in the lead role, clearly having a lot of fun and certainly not phoning it in for big cash. He’s elevated by Pascal who has all the charm and charisma that made him such a huge hit on Game of Thrones. The two share undeniable chemistry, and their characters beg for further adventures. The real stand out though is Jing. Quickly quashing any notion of a ‘white saviour’ plot, and also flying a feminist flag (while keeping her phenomenal hair pristine no matter what), Jing never falters with her English, nor feels as though she is struggling to convey emotion and speak in her second language. She’s strong, vulnerable, and is spared an obvious romance, though there are hints at what could be between her and Damon. This strengthens the film, as everyone seems to have decided that romance has no place while there are monsters to be fighting.

The Great Wall review

Speaking of our antagonists, the monsters are creatively designed, but unfortunately look mostly the same. They also signal the weakness early on of yet another horde of villains controlled by a single queen. It makes everything too neat and tidy, and the climax moves away from the wall itself, making it less exciting than previous skirmishes. Epic in scale and stunning in visuals, The Great Wall is still let down by its very obvious plotting. It’s certainly a fun time, and one made better depending on the size of the screen, but unless you like Yimou’s films and cheesy monster battles, you’d be better off looking into Yimou’s back catalogue for his truly great work. Still, if the amount of sequels and adaptations has you down this year, don’t be afraid to give it a try.

The Great Wall review by Luke Ryan Baldock, February 2017.

The Great Wall is released in UK cinemas on Friday 17th February 2017.

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