Hollywood has no shortage of white saviours: they step into a place where they’re a distinct minority, and then lead them to victory. It’s no coincidence that The Great Wall owes a story credit to The Last Samurai‘s Edward Zwick. The Great Wall, despite its attendant controversy, is not quite your traditional narrative, despite the presence of Matt Damon. For one thing, it’s a blockbuster directed by China’s master of vibrant colour, Zhang Yimou (The Flowers of War), and beyond that, the western characters are almost surplus to requirement. The movie’s actual quality is a slightly different matter, but that’s for the courts to decide.
At an indeterminate point in Chinese history, indeterminately European mercenary William (Damon, Jason Bourne) turns up at the Great Wall with his partner Tovar (Pedro Pascal, TV’s Narcos) in search of “black powder”. Taken into the custody of Commander Lin (Tian Jing), William finds himself in a war against the “Tao Tei”, a hive-mind horde of beasts that emerges every 60 years in the hopes of making it past the Wall to attack the capital and eat the Emperor (Karry Wang)… but Tovar wants to team up with long-term prisoner Ballard (Willem Dafoe, Finding Dory) to steal the black powder and make a break for Europe.
The Great Wall is a simple story without artifice or side story, jammed into a relatively compact 103 minutes. There are a refreshing number of subtitles, which means that only a credible number of soldiers are able to communicate with William; it has the added bonus of many scenes featuring a slightly bemused Damon wondering what is being said around him.
Each attack on the Wall — and there are surprisingly few, given the title — showcases a different form of strategy from each side of the equation. While the Tao Tei are distinctly unpleasantly designed beasts and the gaudy uniforms of the Nameless Squad are redolent of the tackiest video games, there’s a certain obscene spectacle to the action sequences, all of which are incredible in the most literal sense of the term. Yimou has a clear sense of dramatic action, but may have been better served with more traditional martial arts than the sub-Rube Goldberg routines employed against the relentless Tao Tei.
Damon’s implacable accent and the film’s bizarre attempts at humour fall flat each time, and Dafoe is like his character: uncertain precisely why he’s there. Liang is game in her role as Commander Lin, whose femininity is less about girl power than it is about screenwriters Carlo Bernard (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), Doug Miro (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and Tony Gilroy (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) needing a lady foil for Damon. That much of the rest of the cast is rounded out by a variety of Chinese pop stars and boyband members possibly says something about the film, but it’s not entirely clear what.
The Great Wall is the sort of movie that could easily have been made with an entirely Chinese cast, but without a name like Damon’s attached to it, it wouldn’t have been able to secure a $150 million dollar budget. Ironically, the special effects don’t look good enough to justify that price tag, and the essence of The Great Wall‘s limited artistry is beyond compromised. It’s too late to call The Great Wall an expensive failure, but it’s not likely to leave many satisfied viewers in its wake.
The Great Wall opened in Australian cinemas on February 16, 2017.
Directed by: Zhang Yimou.
Starring: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe and Andy Lau.