Blu-ray Review: The Great Wall

The Great Wall suffered from quite a bit of controversy before it was released earlier this year, with the focus mainly being the fact that Matt Damon was cast as a white hero to rescue the Chinese from monsters. It was the usual spreading of gossip via the Internet that tends to happen without any real evidence to back it up, but that’s the day in age we live in right now.

This is actually the largest Hollywood-Chinese co-production to date, and the first English language film directed by legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who Damon calls the Steven Spielberg of China, to put the director’s status overseas in perspective. None of that says whether the film is good or not; but it does explain why Damon is one of the film’s heroes.

So silly controversy aside, is watching The Great Wall worth your time? Well that depends what you’re in the mood for. This is a big budget action-packed monster movie with massive, elaborate sets, and plenty of fantasy elements to create one of the many legends that have been passed down through the ages when it comes to The Great Wall of China, and how it’s used for protection from things of this world and beyond.

It’s clear right out of the gate that no expenses were spared in this effort to have this film satisfy to audiences on both sides of the world, but it’s also fairly generic in its delivery and storytelling. The film begins with a group of European mercenaries who are in pursuit of an explosive black powder, being chased by bandits through the mountains in China. They escape, only to be attacked at night by a mysterious creature that kills all but two of them, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal).

William and Tovar are able to kill the beast, but its body falls down into a cavern, so they have nothing but a severed hand to show for it. The following day their trail is once again picked up on by the bandits, so the pair continues forward until they come upon a massive wall, and a massive army that goes along with it. Deciding that it’s best to be captured by the army than to be killed by the bandits, William and Tovar surrender.

The army they’ve been taken prisoner by is actually The Nameless Order, a Chinese military order commissioned by the Imperial Court of the Song Dynasty to train for the sole purpose of defending The Great Wall against an army of creatures that attacks every sixty years. There are five branches to this colour coordinated spec ops team, though I can only recall three of the colours at the moment, which are Black (melee specialists), Red (archers) and Blue (aerial acrobatic team.) I believe there’s a siege engine group also, but the three mentioned above are the main ones of focus, at least character-wise.

So when the Nameless Order find the severed hand of a Taotie Scout, they realize that the horde of creatures is attacking earlier than expected and must prepare to stop them from getting past The Great Wall and into the capitol, for if they do, then the Queen that leads the beasts will have an infinite food supply and be able to build an unstoppable army of Taotie that will destroy the world with ease. With no choice at the moment but to help fight until they find an opportunity to take the black powder they came for, William and Tovar stay to help fight.

Now the film looks beautiful. Yimou truly is a visionary, as the Wall comes to life with many moving parts to help keep it defended, and the landscapes look phenomenal. While there’s plenty of CGI at work here mixed with the elaborate physical set locations, there’s still definitely a lot of breathtaking moments still to be had when it comes to scenery used throughout.

The action sequences are also quite fun, with endless hordes of beasts charging up the wall, and various different defenses in play to keep them away. One of the most visually spectacular being the blue acrobat specialists, which is a full squadron of female soldiers only. The reason for this is simple: they’re lighter and more agile them men, so they’re able to do the insane task being asked of them with the greatest chance of survival.

That task is to go out on a small ledge of the wall with a rope tied around their waist, leap off with a spear and basically bungee jump into the swarm of creatures, stab one if they’re lucky, and then bounce back upwards to get another spear – that is, if they’re not eaten before they launch back upwards. This is a unique defense system and it’s awesome to watch in action; but it’s also a little silly when you realize how vulnerable these aerialists are for the minimal amount of defense they’re providing (compared to, say, giant blades that swing out of the walls and slice these creatures in half, for example.)

The leader of the blue aerialists Crane Troop is Commander Lin Mae, played by Chinese actress Jing Tian. Now Damon is definitely the bigger name actor; but I found Tian’s character Lin Mae to be much more interesting. In fact, it would have been nice to have seen the film explore her character even more, but this isn’t a movie that’s focused on characters so much as it is the action.

So while the action sequences are entertaining, filled with some creative and fun camera shots to help mix things up with each new wave of attacks, the characters remain fairly simple in their personas. I wouldn’t call them one-note, but I would say that the actions of each of the main characters throughout are fairly predictable and the story never tries to shake things up, or add any real depth on that front.

One thing I did shake my head at was how unstoppable Damon’s character seemed to be. It’s funny how that works sometimes, as it’s easy to look past the bulletproof hero in some films, but in others you’re like, “Wait, these soldiers literally trained their entire lives JUST to fight these monsters and they’re being torn apart like meat-soaked rag dolls in the mouth of a hungry dog, and yet this European soldier – albeit an expert archer himself – shows up and takes these beasts down with such ease that it’s almost as though it’s something he’s done every morning of his life before breakfast?”

Maybe it’s less bothersome that he’s so good, and more bothersome that so many soldiers in this special ops Nameless Order are so useless. I mean, there are always going to be casualties, but so many of them don’t even put up a fight. Let’s just say that if this were Star Trek, 95% of this so-called elite force would be wearing red shirts. Not quite the group you want as the last line of defense against the end of the world, that’s for sure.

All that aside, whether or not you’ll enjoy The Great Wall all comes down to what you’re hoping to get from the movie. If you’re looking for an epic cinematic spectacle that focuses more on historical-fantasy, creature feature action and sweeping visuals over rich and memorable characters, then The Great Wall will definitely give you that during its 100-minute runtime.

The visuals in this film are one of the main reasons to watch it, as director Zhang Yimou continues to be a huge visionary master. The transfer onto the Blu-ray is top quality, with the colourful, vibrant scenes looking just as sharp and clear as the night scenes, or fog filled battle sequence. Overall, this is a high quality transfer for a movie that will benefit greatly from it. On the audio front the sound mix, score and effects all come together nicely. The dialogue works well too, with no need to strain to decipher what people are saying while battles are taking place.

On the special features front we have a few featurettes of note:

Deleted and Extended Scenes – As per usual, unless there’s an alternate ending that I’ll check to see how it could have changed things up, I tend to skip deleted and extended scenes, as they rarely add anything new. But for those who do enjoy them, there are six for you to watch here.

Matt Damon in China – This brief featurette sees Damon talking about working on the film while he’s on set, and how it’s the biggest film in terms of scope and size that he’s ever worked on. It’s a quick, fun watch, but doesn’t delve to deep into anything besides Damon’s thoughts on working on the film.

Working with Director Zhang Yimou – Another brief featurette that’s quite self-explanatory, focusing on what it’s like working with visionary director Yimou.

The Great Wall Visual Effects – This piece looks at the creation of various visual effects for the film, the challenges and how they helped bring the film to life.

Man Vs. Monster – There are three featurettes that make up this feature coming in at a total of just under 10 minutes for the trio. Here the cast and crew talk about the challenges and work that went into creating three of the film’s battle sequences.

Weapons of War – Another brief featurette that sees the set designer, effects coordinator and production designer all talk about creating various weapons for the film, all based off real weapons but enhanced slightly for the benefit of this fantasy tale.

Designing a Spectacular World – The final featurette focuses on the intricate sets used in the film, as well as the props and costumes as well.

Paramount Pictures Presents The Great Wall. Directed By: Zhang Yimou. Written by: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy. Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Eddie Peng. Running time: 104 Minutes. Rating: 14A. Released on Blu-ray: May 23, 2017.

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