Asian blockbusters always have that distinct visual dazzle not present in any western counterparts. And Zhang Yimou’s latest, while given the look and feel of a Hollywood epic, is no different. With an estimated budget of $135 million, The Great Wall is not only the most expensive film production in Chinese history, but also the director’s first English-language feature.
In The Great Wall, Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal star as two mercenary soldiers who unwittingly arrive in China in search of the black powder – the most powerful chemical explosive at that time. However, they get so much more than they ask for when the both of them get embroiled in a long-standing battle between a myriad of color-coordinated Chinese army and a horde of vicious mythical creatures who scale the world’s most iconic structure every 60 years to feed. The two outsiders, who seem to be pretty good in combat themselves, help defeat the monsters, but not without some interpersonal conflicts that occur later in the story.
The Great Wall succeeds mainly because of Yimou’s flair for visual grandeur. His artistic touch is on full display as he gorgeously uses vibrant color and top-notch cinematography in almost every shot. The impressive warfare, thrilling action sequences, and innovative weaponry are what drives this ambitious film forward, despite its straightforward plot.
Speaking of action sequences, the Chinese-Hollywood blockbuster has plenty to go around. Barely 20 minutes into the film and all hell starts to break loose, as scores of ravenous ancient monsters start devouring soldiers in a string of first-rate action sequences that are sure to mesmerize those who are looking for an intense action adventure romp.
While Yimou’s latest flourishes in visual effects, its unexpectedly thin plot places the film at a great disadvantage. His latest offering reeks of “style over substance” as compared to his previous (and better) efforts. Perhaps it’s the ambition to conjure something epic in terms of scope that holds the director in check from showcasing his real talent in storytelling.
The film also boasts a sufficient amount of humor, mostly coming from Pascal’s snarky mouth. But while that may be a good thing for most films nowadays, sadly, majority of the comical aspect here feels forced and compulsory. Whether it’s purpose is to complement Damon’s serious character or to just lighten up the mood, the film would’ve fared better without the unnecessary comedy.
In the end, The Great Wall still triumphs as a simple and straightforward action adventure that delivers big on visual spectacle and exhilarating action. It’s uncomplicated story may put off certain audiences, but those who are looking for an exciting escape can find great comfort in director Yimou’s sure-fire blockbuster.