The Great Wall is an American/Chinese co-production and it’s reputedly the most expensive film ever made in China. It’s plain to see where all the money went. As you might expect from Zhang Yimou, director of House of Flying Daggers and Hero, this is all about spectacle, depicted on a gigantic scale. There are epic battle scenes galore and the recreation of the wall itself is absolutely jaw-dropping. A pity then, that the storyline is built on rather less robust foundations. It’s rambling, to say the least, at times quite nonsensical and it’s staggering to think that it took three screenwriters (one of them the very talented Tony Gilroy) to put it all together.
William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are a couple of soldiers of fortune who have ventured deep into the wilds of China in search of the fabled black powder. (Not a hallucinogenic drug but the stuff you blow things up with). After a run-in with an unseen adversary, they are taken captive by an army who’s task it is to defend the Great Wall against the Taotie, waves of ravening lizard like beasts who for reasons best known to themselves, regenerate and attack the wall every sixty years. When the newcomers prove themselves in a skirmish against the beasts, their lives are spared and Commander Lin (Tian Jing) starts to flutter her eyelashes at William, initiating a deepening (but perfectly chaste) relationship between them. Meanwhile, another captive, Ballard, (Willem Dafoe) who has lived behind the wall for twenty five years has devised an elaborate escape plan and hopes that William and Tovar will join him…
To be honest, nobody is going to watch this for the convincing plot. If you like Zhang Yimou’s unrivalled visuals then the chances are you will find this as aesthetically thrilling as I did. But it also has to be said that brilliant though the CGI beasties are, there are simply way too many of them. Half a dozen fearsome creatures would have had way more impact than the millions that we see swarming over every battle scene. Clearly the director does not subscribe to the old adage that ‘less is more.’ And I might also add that none of the Taotie are quite as fearsome as Damon’s attempt at an English accent… at least, I think it’s meant to be English. Or possibly Irish?
An important slice of American-Chinese cooperation or a somewhat flawed attempt at a credible blockbuster? You choose.