The Great Wall is the latest foray by visionary director Zhang Yimou into the world of Hollywood. From a western point of view, Yimou Is known for the titles Hero And House of Flying Daggers. In the East, he is a household name. He is known for being the man who made Chinese cinema accessible to the West and revitalised the waning popularity of martial arts movies.
The premise was very clear going in: A western warrior finds himself in the middle of a war between China and a mysterious monster whose invasion brought about the building of the Great Wall. I expected a dark and visceral monster movie taking a historical legend and giving it a conceptual makeover. What I got was an all out fantasy epic where the threat was quite literal rather than conceptual. You see the first attack around fifteen minutes and there really isn’t much dread or fear left to the imagination. I would have liked o see more substance in the storyline as it did seem a little bit on the nose. I suppose that is my fault for expecting a certain thing too much.
Fighting the monsters (known as the Tao Tai) are the secretive military sect known as The Nameless Order. Their mission? To protect the empire from the oncoming threat. This is where the visuals of the film began to become a feast for the eyes. The costumes were extravagant and beautiful. Each section of the order is distinguished by a stark colour and animal motif. As pleasing to the eye as this was. It did start to take away from any historical accuracy that I thought the film may have had. The first fight scene was so fantastical and action packed that I realised that I was in fact, watching a fantasy film. The costume stands out as the pinnacle of the film’s visual achievements. The CGI was passable at best and at times paled in comparison to the practical effects and costume. That being said, the portrayal of Chinese culture during the Song Dynasty was as characterful and sublime as any Yimou I have seen.
The stand-out performance was that of Matt Damon as the hero, William, A mercenary who is originally looking for gunpowder with his partner Tovar (Pedro Pascal). Their relationship was something to anchor yourself and made the strange Chinese landscape all that more understandable. I am sad to say that the talents of Willam Defoe were wasted in this film by being cast as Sir Ballard, a European who came twenty fives earlier to find gunpowder and was taken hostage. He has a function in the story but provides little more than vanilla villainy.
I came into the cinema wanting the next instalment of Yimou’s masterful Chinese canon. What I got was a heavily westernised version of what could have been. The writing and storyline were very Hollywood. The visuals seemed a bit sugary compared to the stark brilliance of his earlier work.Yet, at its core The Great Wall. is a perfectly entertaining film that most people would enjoy.