The story of an elite force making a last stand for humanity on the world’s most iconic structure.
China’s most expensive film production ever was also, briefly, one of its most controversial: when Matt Damon was announced in the lead role, many assumed fantasy epic The Great Wall would be yet another case of Hollywood “whitewashing”. But instead of a white saviour rescuing China from monsters, Damon’s character – a mercenary named William – is a somewhat shady and definitely scruffy type who is taught the value of teamwork, loyalty, fighting for something you believe in and not stealing stuff by the supremely disciplined, efficient and technologically advanced Chinese military. It’d almost seem like this film was trying to tell the West something, if not for the fact that the film’s villains are a mindless horde moving as one under the leadership of a supreme ruler sent to punish men’s greed. Let’s just stick with four legs bad, two legs (generally) good.
The Great Wall begins with William and his rag-tag band of would-be thieves (they’ve come looking for “the black powder” so they can go back to 11th Century Europe and get rich blowing things up) fleeing horsemen in the Gobi desert. They escape one set of killers only to be attacked by another, less human, version: only William and Pero (Chilean actor Pedro Pascal) survive. The severed green claw they took as a trophy comes in handy when the horsemen return and chase the pair right up to The Great Wall of China, here a fully-staffed facility with a vast range of colour-coded troops. It seems William cut off the arm of a Taotie – huge lizard-dog like creatures that swarm from the nearby Jade Mountain every sixty years, devouring everything in their path to feed the next generation – and even for the hardened troops of the Nameless Order this is a pretty impressive feat.
The army is led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), but it’s the leader of the bungee-diving all-female Crane Corps, Lin Mae (Jing Tian), who does all the talking, having learnt English from the somewhat craven Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe). At the time, focusing on William’s puzzlement while the Chinese cast talked without subtitles seemed a strong dramatic choice underlining the film’s determination to avoid pandering to Western viewers; unfortunately the distributor revealed afterwards there’d been a fault and the subtitles had been left off. The fact that even the handful of later scenes solely between Mandarin speakers were easily followed is a testament to either director Zhang Yimou’s strong storytelling skills or the somewhat predictable nature of the script.
We then get a series of epic battle sequences as the swarming Taotie throw themselves at the wall while the valiant defenders struggle to fight them off in a variety of visually impressive ways. Sweeping camerawork emphasises the fluid nature of the initial battle as Crane Corps members leap out into the air to stab down at (or be chomped by) waves of Taotie. CGI blood flows and gore splatters; a later fog-bound attack reveals the wall comes equipped with giant scissors to slice up climbers. Meanwhile, Pero and Ballard have teamed up and schemed up to steal the black powder and escape, while William – whose handiness with the bow has earned him the army’s respect – is increasingly drawn to the idea of finally taking on a fight that means more than just a paycheck.
Like almost all big-budget productions (this is produced by Chinese-owned Hollywood studio Legendary) aimed at an international audience, the story here is polished to a generic smoothness. Everything is competent, but rarely impressive: the (English) dialogue is generally serviceable, and the performances range from wooden (Tian) to somewhat less wooden (Damon). But at barely over 90 minutes (not counting a full ten minutes of credits; even Film Victoria gets a mention eventually), this entertaining but forgettable film is little more than a series of impressive battle sequences with a few interesting moments scattered between them. The striking image of a sky filled with candle-powered balloons after a funeral is echoed later when a fleet of larger hot-air balloons are deployed for a race to the embattled capital. Then Matt Damon has a cannon dropped on his head and it all comes crashing down to earth.
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