There are precious few things in this world which cannot be improved by a measure of silliness – and Zhang Yimou’s not entirely historically accurate story of a legendary alien battle at The Great Wall of China is no exception. In combining his trademark gravity defying fight sequences with thousands of green blooded CGI monsters, Zhang has contrarily crafted a very beautiful and wildly expensive B-Movie.
William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are soldiers for hire, wandering the wilds of China in search of a source of black powder – gunpowder – to sell to the highest bidder upon their return to the west. When their group is ambushed late one night William’s mercenary training ensures the pair’s safety and grants them a gory and unusual get-out-of-certain-death-free card as they stumble across a secret army preparing for the fight of their lives.
Our introduction to Commander Lin (Jing Tian) and her Nameless Order comrades is via a breathtaking trap the order spring upon William and Tovar; encircling them with arrows as they approach the wall. Cinematographers Xiaoding Zhao and Stuart Dryburgh taking equal gleeful advantage from the gift of 3D as they extract from the extraordinary desert panoramas of Quingdao. Commander Lin resents the intrusion of the foreigners but is pragmatic enough to see potential value in intelligence from their close encounter with the beast.
The warriors of the order are divided into fighting factions by their disciplines, each group defined by the jewel tone of their armour. Formations become living art as the camera dances between them and, as a wave of intruders approach, The Great Wall’s director hits his stride and the inevitable comparisons to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are strikingly dispelled. Yet, despite the medieval styling, as a visual language this rainbow approach is reminiscent of the recent spate of dystopian YA adaptations making it tricky to emotionally invest.
Against her better judgement Commander Li does begin to emotionally invest in William and endeavours to teach him the value of trust. Both had their childhoods sacrificed to the greater good of nations’ defences. Though William’s loyalties had been available to the highest bidder in latter years on the battlefield she shares with him the same fierce spirit of survival and pride in mastery of fighting craft. Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) entrusts William and Tovar with the secret of the relentless foes they are preparing to meet: the Taotie.
The Taotie – controlled by their cunning strategist queen – have plagued China for centuries as payback for the arrogance of its Emperor. Every sixty years they return to lay siege to the wall and attempt to break through to the capital, Bianliang, where the ruling Emperor presides. Weta Workshop – outdoing themselves with an arsenal of innovative weapons – appear to have drawn inspiration for the quality and aesthetic of these creatures from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ghostbusters, making their reveal underwhelming and the perceived menace laughable.
Willem Dafoe rounds off the western contingent as Sir Ballard, a prisoner of the Nameless Order for the quarter of a century which has passed since his own quest for black powder met with failure. Tovar and, initially, William sees the value in bringing him onside and the three soon have an escape plot in mind. But William is conflicted, his inner hero becoming harder to suppress, and before long Tovar is disgusted to find his coconspirator immune to the appeal of their cunning plan and hungry for a showdown with the alien hoards instead.
The Great Wall faced criticism for its apparent white saviour narrative and, while Zhang Yimou is careful to keep the narrative seesaw of William and Commander Li’s rescuer/rescuee dynamic safely bobbing, the admiration for his bow skills from a battalion of deadly warriors is a little hard to stomach. Fortunately the Chinese leads match Mr Damon for starpower and his blundering, unevenly accented, Irishman is regularly and reassuringly upstaged. Andy Lau’s Strategist Wang is a particular standout, with quiet dignity and poise in the face of the horrors before him.
Jian Tian does not wear her character as comfortably and exchanges with Damon are occasionally awkward but it is refreshing to have a strong female lead drive the action and actually any crowbarred chemistry is pretty surplus to requirements. Aerial shots of Commander Li and her Crane Troop comrades in a swooping assault on the aliens are among the most exhilarating sequences in a film dominated entirely by good looks and dynamic choreography.
As a collaboration between Hollywood and China, The Great Wall is groundbreaking. For fans of Zhang Yimou it is more familiar fare. Lacking the panache of House of Flying Daggers and Hero, this is nevertheless a monstrously entertaining film. Best seen in 3D to truly appreciate the awe of a thousand sky lanterns taking flight in a night sky and the audacity of hungry blades devouring a fantastical invasion, we recommend that you leave your judgy pants at home, sit back and enjoy the ride.
The Great Wall opens across the UK on 17th February