Monsters trying to eat the Chinese guarding the Great Wall. You might think I am spinning a far-fetched yarn … and you would be right. The fantasy adventure The Great Wall is billed as a myth surrounding the famed structure that covers 8,850 kilometres and took a couple of thousand years to build.
Set in ancient Northern China, the film follows mercenary William Garin (Matt Damon) – a master archer – who leads a quintet of battle-scarred warriors. They are on the run from warring desert factions, who hunger for wealth, power and glory. One of the group possesses knowledge of a new weapon that could bring them all the riches they seek. This gunpowder is a fabled explosive, so rare and valuable at the time that it became the “holy grail” of war, a deadly treasure some would die trying to pursue. They have in their possession a magnetic stone, that all but Garin are ready to discard and which will play a significant role in his fate and the fate of others.
After barely surviving a hair-raising scrape with a desert tribe, the group is attacked one night at a remote canyon campsite by an unseen enemy. From their ordeal, Garin takes a severed claw the likes of which he has never seen before. Soon thereafter, Garin and his sword-wielding sidekick, Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal – Narcos), a tough, wise-cracking Spaniard, are captured by an army of warriors known as The Nameless Order. From a vast military outpost called Fortress City, they end up fighting to protect humanity from supernatural forces atop one of the greatest defensive walls ever built. And just who are they in mortal combat with? Tao Tei, a breed of ancient, mythical beasts that rises every 60 years for eight days to feed upon humanity and punish mankind’s greed.
Others of note in the cast include Jing Tian as Lin Mae, who commands one of the five battalions – the all-female Crane Corps of fearless aerialists. She turns Garin’s head and plays a pivotal role in the outcome. Willem Dafoe (The Grand Budapest Hotel) plays Ballard, a shadowy prisoner inside the fortress who plans his escape from his longtime captors.
Directed by Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers), The Great Wall is his first English-language production and the largest film to be shot entirely in China, but to me it simply played out as lavish wallpaper. The original screenplay is by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and Tony Gilory (The Bourne Legacy). It is based upon a story by Max Brooks (World War Z) and Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (The Last Samurai).
The Great Wall is set in an alternate vision of ancient China circa 1100 A.D., during the Song Dynasty. The story imagines that The Wall was built to defend against a malignant species and gargoyle-like figure from Chinese mythology. I’m afraid I found that difficult to swallow and its execution even more so. Unfortunately, it is one lame script that special effects can’t save and a serious misstep for Matt Damon.
A constant posse of horsemen riding through the desert, gunpowder, Alien-like creatures and a beautiful and feisty Chinese warrior – they are the ingredients. Stir liberally, add some hocus pocus or bunkum, a smattering of cornball humour and spend lots of fireworks, but still, unfortunately, in large measure you fail to get lift off. At times I just shook my head and thought, “what were they thinking”. That’s the point … because those behind the project weren’t doing so meaningfully or were seriously misguided, or misjudged the public’s desire for this kind of nonsense. The best scene is one involving letting off thousands of Chinese paper lanterns – it looked beautiful.
The film will do well in China, but in reality The Great Wall, the movie, deserves to crumble. Rated M, it scores a 4½ to 5 out of 10.
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe
Release Date: 16 February 2017
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television