The continents drift along in their stately way, the zodiac processes across the heavens, and the cinematic calendar continues its own slow evolution. When I first got into this ‘paying serious attention to cinema’ game, it was all much simpler: you had serious movies as the majority of releases right up until Oscar Night, at which point the more lightweight fare and genre movies would pop up to fill the gap until the big blockbusters appeared round about the time of Memorial Day in the States. These days, of course, everything is up in the air: the genre movies have been joined by blockbusters much earlier in the year, some of them even before the Oscars have been handed out. It doesn’t help matters that the line between the two appears to become a bit blurred – was Deadpool a genre film or an aspiring blockbuster? How about the imminent Logan, or the new King Kong movie?
Or, for that matter, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall? The film’s $150 million budget, along with the presence of an A-lister like Matt Damon, would seem to suggest a film with the biggest of ambitions. Set against that, on the other hand, is… well, decide for yourself.
The film appears to be set around the 11th century, and opens with European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) leading a small group of adventurers into the remote wilds of the east. (Pascal is allowed to use his native Spanish accent, Damon attempts a rather optimistic, not to mention variable, Irish brogue.) Things look grim when the rest of their party is killed by a weird and mysterious beastie, and hostile local horsemen drive the duo onwards until they encounter something awesome – the imposing sight of the Great Wall of China (which still isn’t visible from space in the 11th century, despite what everyone says)!
The Wall is manned by a huge force of soldiers, apparently getting ready to enact some serious slaughter, but exactly what’s going on is not immediately clear, not least because the only senior officer who speaks English, Commander Lin (Jing Tian), is clearly suspicious of them. Her concerns are quite justified, as the Europeans have only come to China to steal the recipe for gunpowder – nor are they the first, for hanging around the place handing out exposition is Ballard (Willem Dafoe), survivor of a previous expedition with the same aim.
It turns out that the Great Wall is being manned to fend off an invasion of monsters which (the subtitles assure me) are called the Tao Te, a terrifying horde which arises once or twice every century to eat everything in their path. If the monsters are able to overrun the wall and devour the population of the Chinese capital, they will be well-fed enough to conquer the world! Things look bleak – can William put aside his mercenary, capitalistic principles long enough to join forces with the Chinese warriors in a proper piece of collective effort?
This is another one of those films which has received a bit of a savaging from the Diversity Enforcers, on the grounds that it supposedly perpetuates a slightly dodgy trope where a Caucasian protagonist swoops in to save the day for a bunch of incompetent supporting characters of a different ethnicity – the so-called White Saviour stereotype. On paper, you can see why this could be so, but I would argue that fears of this sort are groundless, for two main reasons.
Firstly, the film is largely the work of Chinese film-makers, with the distinguished director Zhang Yimou in charge, and Matt Damon is in this film for basically the same reason that Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen showed up in the last stellar conflict franchise brand extension (it shares one of the same writers, by the way) – to guarantee global ticket sales. The Caucasian presence is a business decision, not anything ideological.
And, secondly, IT’S MATT DAMON ON TOP OF THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA FIGHTING ALIEN MONSTERS WITH A BOW AND ARROW. GET A GRIP ON YOURSELVES AND STOP TAKING THIS FILM SO SERIOUSLY. I mean, really. There’s a time and a place to get righteously indignant, but doing it with this film just makes you look silly.
When word of The Great Wall first reached me, the impression I received was that this was going to be a genuine historical epic, supposedly concerning the fate of some of the Roman soldiers captured by Parthia at the battle of Carrhae in 53BC, who ended up working as mercenaries on the Chinese border. It’s one of the great ‘could it have happened…?’ stories of history, with some tantalising evidence (there is, for instance, apparently a village in western China where, once in a generation, a child is born with curly hair, as those Italian genes resurface). Needless to say, if this was ever the case, it ain’t true now, for this is… this is…
Actually, I’m genuinely unsure what kind of film this is supposed to be. It starts off not a million miles away from The Man Who Would Be King, in terms of the two main European characters and the tone of their relationship. But as soon as we reach the Wall itself, with its battalions of primary-coloured troop-types and CGI as far as the eye can see, it starts turning into something rather less interesting and more superficial. And once the major VFX sequences start rolling, with Starship Troopers-style swarms of monsters scuttling over the horizon (the script suggests these may genuinely be aliens), and female soldiers bungee-jumping off the top of the Wall to stab the monsters with spears… well, it’s like a cross between some kind of garish computer game and a comic book, and not an especially interesting one.
The characterisation is pretty thin, the CGI about as persuasive as Damon’s Irish accent, and it has none of the class or sophistication of the other films I’ve seen from Zhang Yimou, for all that it has the same underlying principles and fascination with colour as movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers – I’m kind of reminded of Ang Lee’s Hulk, as another example of a director best known as an art-house darling taking a crack at something much more mainstream and just not quite being able to hack it. Not that this is Matt Damon’s finest hour, either: there may be a Chinese expression that describes just how far out of his comfort zone Damon visibly is for most of this film, but it certainly doesn’t exist in English.
To be honest, this looks like the kind of knowingly silly, CGI-heavy piece of fluff that should be starring a wrestler or possibly Gerard Butler, so the presence in it of proper actors is one of the most bemusing things about it (Andy Lau is also in the cast, by the way). But it’s just an odd, odd film overall, not really compelling as an American action movie or a Chinese fantasy. It neither convinces nor persuades, nor does it grip or thrill. But on the other hand, it’s mostly just silly rather than being actually bad, and of all the great walls currently being unleashed on the world, this is not the one people should really be complaining about.