The Great Wall movie posterWhat’s up with Matt Damon’s accent?

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and not just from puzzling that question. The Great Wall has a super-basic plot: monsters vs. wall army; fighting for a cause vs. self-interest. However, the mythic elements and the visuals, as with all Zhang Yimou films, do not disappoint. The sound design, particularly a scene with whistling arrows, was outstanding.

I expected Damon’s character to be a token one, like American films do with Chinese actors. But he is the true star of the film, with a strong support from Chinese actress Jing Tian. The main flaw is that he is supposed to be a selfish mercenary who learns to commit to something bigger than himself. But we never see him be selfish, only hear a lot of talk about it.

Jing Tian is beautiful. Her hair remains salon-perfect despite repeatedly taking on and off a helmet. However, her English seemed to have been learned phonetically. It lacks actorly inflections. I would have preferred to have a bit more character development from her, but maybe her performance was trimmed in editing. Pedro Pascal, playing a Spanish mercenary friend of Damon’s character, lends the movie a Game of Thrones vibe. He and Willem Dafoe, as another corrupt Westerner in the Song empire, are quite good. Andy Lau, a huge Chinese star, is wasted in his role as another military leader.

But you’re not going to this film for character development. I wish I had gone to a 3D screening. As with previous Zhang Yimou period epics, the production design and visual effects are a sumptuous feast. The monster battles are varied and plentiful. And, unlike recent American blockbusters, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Although the film was written by North Americans (including Marshall Herskovitz, Ed Zwick and Tony Gilroy), no doubt it contains additional levels of meaning for Chinese audiences. The monsters (the Tao Tei, hopefully to be featured again in some Legendary Pictures King Kong sequel) emerge every 60 years. Was this number chosen to evoke the communist revolution? Certainly portraying the Mongols as rapacious alien hordes is a bit insensitive.

The Great Wall, like all walls, is better on paper than reality. Still, I’d rather have more original films in unique settings (like this one) than ten predictable remakes.