Admittedly, it sounds like a ridiculous idea on paper. Hell, even when you see it executed on the big screen, you almost can’t believe that somebody came up with the idea that the Great Wall of China, built centuries ago over the course of more than 1000 years, was constructed to keep something out. In the case of the film The Great Wall, that “something” is a swarming army of horrifying monsters with giant teeth who eat anything they can sink their fangs into and then regurgitate said meal into the mouth of their all-powerful queen. Bring the whole family!
As much as some have criticized The Great Wall (before having seen it, mind you) for positioning a white character (in this case, Matt Damon with what I think is supposed to be an Irish accent) at the center of a story meant to be, in no small part, a celebration of Chinese ingenuity, courage, and military strength. But Damon’s William Garin is no traditional hero; he’s a thief, mercenary, and occasional killer, who is traveling across China in search of a new and elusive weapon known as gunpowder.
Along with his companion Pero Tovar of Spain (“Game of Thrones” actor Pedro Pascal), the two have been trekking across the Gobi Desert, losing men and morale over the months, until they are attacked at night by unseen monsters. Garin manages to kill one, and when they are captured by the armies protecting the wall (known as the Nameless Order), having a body part once belonging to a monster is their ticket to being considered worthy warriors, even if their ultimate goal is to steal as much gunpowder as they can carry. The pair find out that the monsters are called the Taotie, which rise from within a nearby mountain every 60 years to eat everything and make a play for the Imperial City. To date, the Order has managed to hold them back, but they quickly discover that the Taotie are evolving and getting much smarter with each new attack.
The Great Wall marks China’s most expensive film production, as well as the first partnership between China, Universal Pictures and Legendary. I’m sure there were many discussions about how many Chinese actors would be used in the film, how much Mandarin would be spoken (versus broken English), and how much the story would make the Chinese soldiers look like total badasses. For those who follow Chinese cinema (which is a lot easier to do these days, since multiplexes regularly feature some of the more popular Chinese-language productions), you’ll probably recognize a few familiar faces among the cast, including Zhang Hanyu and Andy Lau in a key role as the Nameless Order’s key military strategist.
My favorite character is that of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian, soon to be featured in both Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising), a leader in the Order who oversees an all-female defensive force known as the Crane Corps, which rappels down the side of the wall fully armed and kills as many approaching Taotie as they can. It’s an impressive and sometimes deadly job. At first, you think perhaps Lin Mae is being set up as a love interest for Garin, but their relationship becomes more a mutual admiration society. Also lurking in the shadows of the wall vast passages and room is Ballard (Willem Dafoe), an American living among the Chinese for 20 years because they won’t let him leave with the knowledge of the Taotie or gunpowder. But having two more co-conspirators to steal with gives Ballard a newfound confidence to escape during the next major battle.
It should come as no surprise that The Great Wall comes courtesy of China’s most popular and revered filmmaker Zhang Yimou, whose filmography includes several eras of great work, including Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower (not to mention staging the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing). Like many of Zhang’s film, the use of color is exceptional, especially when looking at the coordinated factions of the Order’s army and the design of the Imperial city during the film’s climactic battle sequence.
I’m not going to attempt to pass off The Great Wall as some great exercise in epic cinema, but beginning with the director, the film does feature a great number of surprisingly entertaining elements that often work quite nicely together. The final product is a bit nutty and bizarre, but since when is that such a bad thing? Is it culturally insensitive? It doesn’t feel that way, and I suspect that the Chinese producers and whoever else got a gander at the screenplay and final cut of the film made sure it wasn’t. It’s just strange and bold, and I happen to love that combination. So if you’re feeling a bit adventurous and in need of something different, it doesn’t get much different than this one.