Starring global superstar Matt Damon and directed by one of the most breathtaking visual stylists of our time, Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), Legendary's The Great Wall tells the story of an elite force making a valiant stand for humanity on the world's most iconic structure. The first English-language production for Yimou is the largest film ever shot entirely in China. The Great Wall also stars Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe and Andy Lau.
When you take a moment to consider the global marketplace, you can't fault Hollywood producers for shooting big. 2016's The Great Wall is just the sort of cash cow opportunity producers were hoping to milk for all its worth. Combine a couple popular Western actors and various stars of the Chinese market, grab a great director like Zhang Yimou, snag the creative team behind Narcos, let Tony Gilroy polish the script, and you have the recipe for a solid action/adventure flick. Unfortunately, there just isn't enough stew in the soup for a completely ridiculous film like The Great Wall to be taken seriously. However, it's eye-popping over-the-top action hijinks and thick melodrama makes it a perfect pizza and beer flick to enjoy with the company of friends.
Western mercenaries William (Matt Damon) and his pal Tovar (Pedro Pascal) have made the long and perilous journey to the far east to secure the mythical weapon "black powder" from the Chinese. After killing a strange creature and taking its severed arm, William and Tovar are captured by members of the Nameless Order - a large army of highly-skilled warriors tasked with defending the wall. But what are they defending the wall from?
As it turns out, the beast William and Tovar encountered and killed the night before has friends. Lots of them. Known as the Taotie and led by a queen beast, these vicious monsters number in the hundreds of thousands and have an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Every sixty years the beasts rise and skilled commanders like Lin Mae (Tian Jing), General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) are tasked with fending off the beasts and protecting the defenseless capital - and the rest of the world - from the deadly creatures. If William and Tovar have any hope of escaping with the secret of black powder, they'll have to trust the Nameless Order and bravely fight beside them.
If you missed The Great Wall in theaters, you probably heard about the harsh critical reviews, the casting controversies, and the heavy losses this film incurred threatening future Chinese/American co-productions. But is it really that bad? Is it actually one of the worst misfires ever made? The long and the short of it is yes, The Great Wall is pretty bad - but is still incredibly entertaining. If you just let the absurdity wash over you, The Great Wall turns out to be a riotously entertaining flick to gather up some friends, order a pizza, and tip back a couple long necks while watching. It can't be taken seriously, so don't even try.
To start things off, I must address Matt Damon. The guy is infinitely better than many of the films he's recently been featured in and The Great Wall is no exception. He's supposed to be English and yet his accent is something that sounds more like England by way of Minnesota while chewing his cheeks. When the audience is introduced to the commanders of the Nameless Order, their individual color armor schemes made my wife and I both ask if they were supposed to be Power Rangers. Then we have their battle tactics. While the combat sequences are very exciting and would look incredible in 3-D, the logistics of lancers bungee jumping off the wall to stab the monsters seems incredibly ineffective - especially when you see the results of the efforts.
Next, we have Willem Dafoe's conniving Ballard, a fellow westerner who has been more or lest kept as a loose prisoner for over 25 years. He's there to simply provide some exposition for the audience and to tempt Tovar away from the more honorable path. Watching the movie you get the sense that Dafoe is mostly there as part of a paid vacation to China rather than actually putting in the effort. Then we have the pseudo love angle between Damon's William and Tian Jing's Lin Mae. Tepid would be a way to describe the heat coming off these two. The subtleties are there within the dialogue of a romantic longing, but neither pull it off convincingly.
Finally, we come to the CGI quadruped Taotie who senselessly have their eyes on their shoulders and communicate as a hive mind with their queen. Their purpose is to simply kill humans, eat them, and then take that already chewed food back to their queen for her to consume. I have to admit that in concept it's a pretty creepy creature, but given their weightless CGI nature and their primary weakness is a magnet (seriously), it's hard to feel them as much of a threat. They're still fun little beasties.
Taken as a whole, The Great Wall is hardly great filmmaking. That said, it's visually stunning with some impressive production design and totally bonkers action sequences. Not the complete travesty it's been branded, it's the kind of movie that, if it had been made by Roland Emmerich a decade ago, audiences would have eaten it up. If it had been made by Syfy it'd be the biggest budgeted and best Sharknado movie made to date. It's an audience pleaser, but specifically for an audience who loves a dumb fun ride that you can openly laugh at while enjoying with fellow friends. If you're gong to enjoy this one, don't think about it, just go with it.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K UHD
The Great Wall arrives on 4K UHD Blu-ray courtesy of Universal Pictures in a two-disc UHD + Blu-ray + Digital Copy Set. Pressed onto a BD-66 disc, the discs are housed in a standard black sturdy UHD case with identical slipcover artwork. The disc loads to an animated main menu with traditional navigation options. All bonus features are found on the standard Blu-ray disc.
With a clear uptick in resolution, detail, and color, The Great Wall stands strong on 4K UHD. Improved detail levels are immediately noticeable. From the costuming to the facial features and makeup work to make Matt Damon look like he hasn't shaved in over a year, there is a notable increase in image quality. It's also nice because of the impressive production design work you actually want to take a moment and look at everything. Detail improvements carry over onto the battlefield as now you can more clearly make out individual Taotie creatures within the hoard as they attack the wall. However, this clarity and detail improvement is a bit of a double-edged sword. As you can see and appreciate more details - some of the CGI work is betrayed and can look even more cartoonish than before. Granted most of these effects were designed with 3-D in mind, still, in 2-D at this resolution the digital trickery stands out.
With HDR10 working for it, The Great Wall displays a gorgeous color range. When the Nameless Order army amasses for the first assault, the bright blues, yellows, reds, purples are much sharper and more pronounced. Even the Taotie take on a deeper emerald green tone. Primaries enjoy a beautiful pop and presence without being heightened to the point of being unrealistic or garish. Flesh tones also enjoy a healthier balance than the standard Blu-ray presentation. Black levels see an improvement so that even during the darkest scenes, there is just a bit more fine shadow separation providing a better sense of depth and dimension to the image. All around this is a very vivid and beautiful looking 4K transfer and with the color spectrum at play, the HDR presence adds a lot to the film's experience.
The Great Wall roars to life with a thunderingly invigorating English/Chinese Dolby Atmos mix. From the first frame to the last, the sound design is intense and sucks you into the picture. While the opening moments when William and Tavor are trying to escape some bandits sound great, the film really comes to life during that first big battle sequence. As each battalion is called into action, they're each given their own war drum command. It's the heavy LFE that rumbles out of those drums that really gets the blood pumping. Toss in the screeches from the Taotie, the war screams of the fighters, and the heavy explosions and you have a track that was made for Atmos systems. Even in the quietest scenes, there is a constant sense of immersion. Space and dimension are well defined throughout. Levels are even and never require adjustments - but I would suggest you keep things on the loud side. I was grateful my immediate upstairs neighbors were out of town so I could really let my sound system rip loose.
For a flop of a film, The Great Wall actually enjoys some brief, but decent bonus feature content beyond the simple tried and true EPK filler. Each segment may not be long, but they cover a lot of ground. All bonus features are found on the standard Blu-ray disc.
Deleted and Extended Scenes: (HD 6:49) Most of these scenes are filler and extensions rather than completely new sequences.
Commander Lin Enters The Great Hall
Guards Take Tovar To The Barracks
Ballard Takes Tovar Inside The Wall
Extended Scheming In Ballard's Suite
Extended Funeral Sequence
Tovar and Ballard Wait For William
Lin Mae Arrives At The West Tower
Extended Emperor Sequence
Matt Damon In China (HD 2:45) This is just a quick bit of Damon talking about his experience on set. It feels carved out of several longer featurettes into this shorter version.
Working With Director Zhang Yimou (HD 3:06) Again, it's brief, more EPK feeling as it's mostly quick cuts of various cast and crew talking about Zhang Yimou.
The Great Wall Visual Effects (HD 3:06) Short but mighty, this is a really cool look at the work that went into creating the visual effects work for the film.
Man VS Monster (HD 9:22) This is a very cool but brief look at the distinct fighting styles and setups that went into each major action set piece.
The First Battle
The Second Battle
The Third Battle
Weapons of War (HD 3:17) This is a very fun little bit showcasing all of the practical set props and models Weta Workshop designed for this film.
Designing A Spectacular World (HD 3:34) This is a bit of a companion piece to the Weapons of War segment that discusses all of the impressive production design work.
Considering the wonder of the titular structure found within The Great Wall, this film hardly lives up to the name. But it isn't a complete disaster either. For lovers of schlock cinema, you've got another great flick to gather like-minded friends around and have had a good laugh at. It can't be taken seriously and should be seen the same way one would watch something like the 1998 Godzilla - with tongues planted firmly in cheek. While the movie itself may not be the most amazing thing to come to disc, that didn't stop Universal from putting out a quality 4K UHD release. With a beautiful 2-D only transfer that enjoys a clear improvement over its Blu-ray counterpart, an incredibly loud and dynamic Dolby Atmos mix, nice assortment of bonus features, I'm calling this one as being worth a look. Grab some friends, good food, and a drink or two and have some fun. The Great Wall was built for fun.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.