Anything that takes almost two millennia to build had better be able to stand up to the test of time, and the Great Wall of China fits that bill. One of the most amazing protective structures (or any kind of structure, for that manner) ever made, people visit it in droves to take in its majesty, history, and wonder. The stories that have taken place around its over 13,000 miles have been told in just about every iteration and genre of storytelling imaginable, and director Yimou Zhang, who has brought us films like “Course of the Golden Flower,” “House of Flying Daggers,” and “Hero” works with veteran writers Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy along with Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz take their shot with Matt Damon carrying the vehicle known as “The Great Wall”.
It is ancient China, and the Chinese have invented what is called “black powder,” which we know as gunpowder. William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) have traveled there from Europe to bring some of the powder back for themselves to use as instruments of destruction when they come across a Tao Tie and kill it. Little do they know that the monster they dispatched is part of a larger horde that has been attacking the province every sixty years, with the Great Wall protecting the palace of the region. When they are captured by the Nameless Army and present them with the talon of the monster they have killed, they are forced to make a choice: continue on with their mission and steal the powder hidden within the wall with the help of another man who has been there for twenty-five years, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), or stand and fight along with Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) using some of the knowledge of the monsters they have mistakenly learned.
What I really dig about this film is that it seems to know what it is and stays in its lane. There are those that will thumb their nose at it and pan it for not being a sweeping war epic, and others that will draw parallels (especially with the VFX) with one of Landis’ other films, “World War Z,” but I think they miss the point here. Damon could not have seen this script and thought, “Here is my next Oscar!” but I would like to think he read it and went, “This ought to be fun, so let’s put me in a ponytail and do this thing!”. It is visually stunning (although the 3-D presentation that we were a part of could have been utilized a bit more to make the effects really pop), and just plain fun to watch.
“The Great Wall” reminded me a lot of the weekend matinee movies they would show on television when I was growing up. Whether it was the jungle adventures of Tarzan, “Kung Fu Theatre,” one of the great westerns starring some of the best actors of its day, a thrilling crime story, or a swash buckling pirate tale, these films may not have thought provoking dialogue or undertones of the political climate of their time, but again, that is not the point. There is an evil that needs to be fought, and we are the good guys, so let’s go fight it. Period. You don’t have to look for a deeper meaning here. That’s it. I think that as a society (and even as a circle of critics) we set the bar so high for our entertainment dollar that sometimes we forget to take a step back and enjoy a film for what it is; entertainment. And at the end of it all, that is what this film is. Granted, there is a bit of Kevin Costner/”Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”-itis here (and I am pretty sure you know what I mean, and if you don’t, you will) and there are a couple of slow spots, but neither of those factors was not enough for me to not to settle in and enjoy the ride, so go check out this film and enjoy the escapism!