Directed by Yimou Zhang
Starring Matt Damon, William Dafoe, Tian Jing, Pedro Pascal
A couple of European mercenary adventurers travel to China in search of the mysterious black powder, and a potential fortune. What William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) find is a gigantic wall manned by an elite force of troops. Taken prisoner, they soon discover that the Wall is besieged, by a force the likes of which they have no understanding of, the mysterious and inhuman Taoties. If the Wall falls, so does medieval China, and eventually the rest of humanity.
This is a film that never lives up to its potential. Sure it is visually stunning, but at this stage in director Yimou Zhang’s career, that is only to be expected. That’s not to appear dismissive, just that we know his power in creating something that is an achingly beautiful splash of colour, after Raise the Red Lantern, and Hero. It’s a given. The issue is that The Great Wall values spectacle over narrative, and development. This in turn leaves things feeling a little hollow, not aided by the lack lustre performances of some of the cast, and the rather standard plot (beyond the gonzo set-up). The result is a little disappointing, but there certainly is some fun to be had in this historical (and I mean that in the loosest possible definition of the word – there are alien monsters here) epic.
The majority of the issues arise out of the script, or the lack there of. Here it seems the safest path has been chosen, by creating the blandest least offensive script possible, so the film can play as both a Hollywood and Chinese epic. The theory is, by doing this the co-production should play to either market equally well. However the result is just middling, and has been given a rather lukewarm reception in both China and America. The most effort seems to be given to the setting up of the premise of the forces garrisoned at the Wall, and the explanation of the monstrous Taoties. Even this is just a pencil sketch, but there it’s a rich enough concept to feel like it has a wealth of unexplored depth.
Damon’s performance is equally lackluster, as if he’s motivated only to walk across the set to collect a dangling pay cheque. Surprisingly he’s joined in this Thespian stupor by William Dafoe , who puts in a rare perfunctory turn. Only Pedro Pascal (Narcos, Game Of Thrones) saves it for the Hollywood contingent, by giving some spark to William’s comrade in arms. The Chinese contingent fairs slightly better, with Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs, Detective Dee: Mystery Of The Phantom Flame) and Tian Jing putting in serviceable performances with what little the script gives them.
However, the sheer ludicrous nature of the premise, the beautiful visuals, and the obvious effort that has gone into preproduction design, go a long way to salvaging this film. Sure the dire script and acting mire it, but there are sequences that you can forget about that. Get lost in the moment, and you can see the potential that was here. Swept up in this moments (and there are a few, during the numerous grand battle sequences) and The Great Wall can be an enjoyable b-grade film. It may be a bad Yimou Zhang film, but even that can bring something to admire.