Since the 1980s celebrated director Zhang Yimou has glided effortlessly from intimate dramas to action films and sweeping historical epics. The Great Wall definitely belongs in the epic category, being the most expensive Chinese film ever made, but eschews history for pure fantasy.
There was a fair bit of carping before the film came out about this being another example of Hollywood whitewashing. And while it’s true that the two main actors are white, they’re not miscast replacements of Chinese figures, nor are they the great white heroes who have come to save the orient.
A preface tells us that the Great Wall of China is home to many great historical events, and many legends, and that this is one of the legends. Thus giving the filmmakers licence to conjure up whatever silly story they want. This they do, so say goodbye to logic or accuracy of period detail.
The legend, set in the Song Dynasty, involves two mercenaries from the West, William (Matt Damon – looking and sounding very unlike Damon at film’s beginning) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal). They’ve come in search of ‘the black powder’, highly valued gun powder. Trekking along the wall, it isn’t long before they are captured by the Chinese militia.
This turns out to be bad timing indeed. Once captive, the wall is taken under siege by a stampede of marauding reptilian, dinosaur hybrids. A mighty battle ensues between the army and the beasts (known as Taoties). William and Tovar join the fight and prove valuable in contributing to the army’s defense.
Now accepted as guests, albeit with a fair amount of suspicion, the pair are called upon to help with the longer term war between the Taoties and the people of China. Tovar is more interested in finding the gunpowder and making a run for it, but William begins to see a greater calling than just being a selfish mercenary.
Damon and Pascal are both very good as the initially amoral central duo, and there’s a surprising amount of quiet albeit anachronistic humour to their banter. The script, co-written by Tony Gilroy of Michael Clayton fame, ensures this isn’t a totally brain dead action movie. It’s just a pity that the Chinese characters aren’t as well drawn as the two leads. Tian Jing and local star Andy Lau both have sizeable English speaking parts, but don’t get to display much of their considerable charisma.
While 3D in live action movies is usually little more than just a gimmick that actually detracts more than it enhances the visuals, here it looks spectacular and the format is used to maximum effect. The results are sometimes quite dizzying.
It terms of story and character development this doesn’t come close to Yimou’s best work, although that’s a tall order. It is however a thoroughly entertaining adventure pic on a truly majestic scale, propelled by a thumping score by Ramin Djawadi. Just don’t expect anything more than a rollicking, superficial bit of fun.
The Great Wall is currently in general release
Richard Leathem @dickiegee