An Irishman and a Spaniard ride into China. While that may sound like the setup for a bad joke, it’s good to note that The Great Wall, Zhang Yimou’s epic fantasy set mostly on a besieged stretch of the titular landmark, is not quite in that category.
Sure, it has some shut-the-heck-up moments of sheer goofiness, and bits that make you a little annoyed because the scriptwriters keep people deliberately clueless just so some lightbulb moment can occur in the lead actor’s presence. (All the more reason to needlessly justify the movie’s perceived “whitewashing” which, I have to say, largely seems to be just a chip on someone’s shoulder.)
On the whole, though, I didn’t find this a disagreeable film, in the way that some movies can leave the most composed reviewer frothing at the mouth (I’m still looking at you, BVS).
While it’s far from the director’s most affecting or assured work, The Great Wall is that typical fantasy blockbuster that is just there to wow viewers with glorious, empty-headed spectacle – and this it does, with cool, slick execution accentuated by a thunderous Ramin Djawadi score.
The Irishman mentioned earlier is William Garin (Matt Damon), a mercenary who has come to China with his comrade Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) seeking a reputed “black powder” weapon that will make them lords, maybe even kings, back home.
Instead, they stumble upon the Great Wall of China, at a stretch that is guarded by a massive (and stylishly colour-coordinated) army known as the Nameless Order.
The order’s … er, orders are to defend the kingdom against a horde – seriously, it’s a freakin’ horde – of monsters known as the Tao Tei. That’s no tall tale, as William and Pero soon discover.
Much exposition follows thanks to a gutsy woman commander named Lin (Jing Tian), who was conveniently taught English (and Latin) by Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who also came to China seeking the black powder 25 years ago and stayed on.
William eventually finds himself torn between his greed and finally fighting a war that he believes in; as he recounts his numerous battlefield allegiances to Lin in one of several not-quite-a-romance moments, we see that he has no qualms switching sides for a payday.
His selfish world-view changes one bungee jump of faith and several quite spectacular battle scenes later, however. By which time the movie starts to lose its grip and things degenerate into a desperate and somewhat slapdash struggle for survival that appears to have been directed by someone else altogether (like a post-2000 Tsui Hark, perhaps).
Viewers might get some chuckles (unintentional ones) out of the way the Nameless Order and its chief strategist Wang (Andy Lau) keep pulling one eyebrow-raising weapon after another from out of nowhere. And William, dude, you were content to just settle for the black powder? What about the freakin’ giant wall-mounted scissors? The hot air balloons? The mind boggles.
Ultimately, The Great Wall is a sensory delight that just doesn’t have enough substance to engage the heart or the mind – thus making it just another brick in the fantasy-flick wall.
The Great Wall
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng, Han Lu