by Christian Hamaker – Raises some interesting ideas about trust, sacrifice and purpose, but not even an international cast led by Matt Damon can compensate for an overall failure of imagination in this slack, detached story. 1.5 out of 5.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence
- Language/Profanity: "Good God, man"; "basta-d"; "b-tch".
- Sexuality/Nudity: None.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: Several battle scenes and explosions, including scenes of dying fighters. Frightening monsters are seen several times, often attacking and sometimes dying.
- Drugs/Alcohol: None.
During the Song dynasty, mercenaries William Garin (Matt Damon) and his friend Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) come upon a secret society—the Nameless Order—that battles malevolent forces outside the Great Wall of China. The mercenaries team with a captive, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), to plot ways to make off with the Nameless Order's stash of gunpowder. But it's not long before Garin, spurred by Lin Mae (Tian Jing)—a fighter in the Nameless Order who encourages Garin to think beyond himself and to trust others—begins to feel called to help the order defeat the Tao Tei, mythical beasts resembling giant lizards that rise every 60 years to feed upon humanity.
Although it's a shopworn idea, a hero with a checkered past being challenged to be something more than he has been—to show he won't be defined by his lowest moments—can be stirring. Those ideas are made explicit in fleeting moments of The Great Wall, but for the most part they're forgotten or simply fight to come to the surface. Had they been more developed, The Great Wall would have been more successful than it is, but I was grateful to have a few scripted moments that suggested a better story than the one we get here.
From a weak story to middling performances and the seen-it-all-before quality of its action scenes, very little works in The Great Wall. But the Tao Tei should be singled out as particularly disappointing. No matter how much money was spent on special effects, the CGI quality of these creatures is glaringly obvious.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
Garin wrestles with his past and his sense of identity, telling Lin Mae of his mercenary background—he says he once fought for the Pope, among many others—and how he stayed alive by trusting no one. Lin Mae says trust is essential to working effectively as part of the army of fighters, and that Garin needs to "have faith" and that "in this army, we give our lives for something more." Garin attempts to embrace those more sacrificial, noble ideals, but he's told that he's a thief, a liar and a killer who can never undo the things he's done, and that his attempts to portray himself as a man of virtue aren’t convincing.
As Garin tries to prove through his actions that he won't be defined by his past, the allegations brought to mind Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, specifically 6:9–11, in which the apostle catalogs the sins of the Corinthian believers while also offering solace by asserting that these are not what characterizes these believers now. The Great Wall doesn't offer the same reassurance Paul offers, of course, and few people going to see the film will be looking for these sorts of parallels, but in Lin Mae's encouragement, The Great Wall may strike a chord, however briefly, with Christian viewers. Director Zhang Yimou's primary interest lies more in mythical monsters and battle scenes that consistently fail to generate tension or interest than in exploring these themes.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: Only for the most forgiving action-movie fans.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Matt Damon fans will be disappointed by the wooden quality of his performance here. Nor do any of the other actors shine particularly—not even Dafoe, who's usually interesting to watch even in subpar films. Not here.
The Great Wall, directed by Zhang Yimou, opens in theaters February 17, 2017. It runs 103 minutes and stars Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Pedro Pascal and Andy Lau. Watch the trailer for The Great Wall here.
Christian Hamaker brings a background in both Religion (M.A., Reformed Theological Seminary) and Film/Popular Culture (B.A., Virginia Tech) to his reviews. He still has a collection of more than 100 laserdiscs, and for DVDs patronizes the local library. Streaming? What is this "streaming" of which you speak? He'll figure it out someday. Until then, his preferred viewing venue is a movie theater. Christian is happily married to Sarah, a parent coach and author of Hired@Home and Ending Sibling Rivalry.