Zhang Yimou's The Great Wall is a sleek monster film that befits the artistry of its director. I must admit to being underwhelmed by the trailers. My interest was not piqued, even though I have been an ardent fan of Zhang's work. Then there was the whole "whitewashing" controversy. Why is Matt Damon, a Caucasian American actor, the lead in a Chinese film? Don't let the negative, pre-release publicity influence you. The Great Wall is entertaining and swift. It's action packed, beautifully shot, and much more humorous than expected. Zhang has made a highly cinematic popcorn flick.
Matt Damon stars as William, a mercenary and crack archer in Crusade era China. He and his Spanish partner, Toval (Pedro Pascal), have been searching for the legendary black powder that explodes. It is their key to a life of luxury in the west. What they find is the Great Wall of China. Even more intriguing is the reason why it's there. Hideous monsters, Tao Tei, are being held at bay by the wall. It's the barrier protecting humanity from a terrifying onslaught. William and Toval find themselves on the front line against a seemingly unstoppable enemy.
The action scenes in this film are brilliantly staged. Anyone who's seen Zhang's previous work, like Hero and The House of Flying Daggers, knows this director's vision. He comes at you from all angles. The siege of the wall is an orchestra of carnage. Zhang's films flow like poetry. I can't help but think that The Great Wall with a traditional Hollywood director would have been clunky and overblown. Here we have a symphony of destruction and violence that's much cooler than the usual CGI nonsense.
Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal are hilarious together. This casting is truly inspired. Damon is not usually seen as a comedian, but he's got the chops. Just think of how funny he was in The Martian. He understands the impact and timing of a good delivery. Pascal, known for Narcos and Game of Thrones, has fantastic chemistry with Damon. The pair play very well of each other. I'm curious to see how much of their interaction was scripted. Their interplay had the audience laughing throughout.
I won't get into details of the Tao Tei. They are sufficient enough as monsters to be viewed as serious threats. The CGI skirts video game territory in a few scenes, but not enough to derail the entertainment value of the film. There's a bit of creativity in how they sound and communicate. The script is basic, but at least the baddies have a few interesting things going for them.
Let's get back to the controversy of Matt Damon being the star of this film. Constance Wu from TV's Fresh Off the Boat was one of the louder critical voices. Why isn't an Asian actor the lead here? There is merit to this question, but the answer is money. Zhang, one of China's most venerated artists, who even directed their Olympic ceremony, is making a global product. The Great Wall is primarily a Chinese film, but they spent a $150 million dollars making it.
The filmmakers want success in the American market. Matt Damon is a huge global star that draws a massive audience everywhere. Also, the story is about outsiders caught up in the conflict. I think the politically correct card can be put back in the deck. Sometimes this kind of casting is an issue, but I sincerely believe it is being overblown in this instance.
From Universal Pictures and Legendary, The Great Wall is a monster film the entire family can enjoy. It's violent, but not graphically so. It's also a postcard for Chinese culture. The costumes, choreography, and set design are excellent in their depiction of ancient China. Zhang isn't reinventing the wheel. It's his take on pop cinema, which is markedly better than the usual.