Released in that decade where it felt like 70% of Legendary Studios’ output was monster movies, The Great Wall was something slightly different.
The most expensive film ever shot entirely in China and the English language debut of Zhang Yimou, whose multicolored martial art epics (Hero, The House Of Flying Daggers) had held audiences spellbound, it seemed like The Great Wall could actually aspire to greatness due to is bizarre fusion of The Last Samurai and Starship Troopers. However, the movie seemingly ran into a wall itself after accusations of whitewashing and the apparent over usage of the white savior trope dogged the movie ahead of release with a teaser poster featuring nothing but Matt Damon’s face not doing much to help matters. However, while these issues may have caused some sizable grumbles, that was nothing compared to the fact that when it came out, The Great Wall was not much more that a standard bug hunt with some pretty embellishments.
Mercenaries William Garin and Pedro Tovar are searching China for the secret to explosive black powder we know as gunpowder in order to sell it on and make their fortunes, but while camping a few short miles from the Great Wall, they barely survive an attack from a mysterious creature that mauls the rest of their group but succeed in chopping off an monstrous limb. Fleeing to the Wall, they are taken prisoner by the Nameless Order, a fighting force that dwells within the structure that have been preparing for an invasion of voracious, alien monsters named the Tao Tie that occurs once every 60 years and are taken aback by the fact these outsiders have managed to kill one. Led by General Shao and strategist Wang and featuring various battalions marked out by different coloured armour who are tasked with different fighting skills, the Order is dismayed to find out that the attack has come a week early and before you know it, the place is awash with spikey, bitey beasties who rend, tear and savage any fleshy bits they can in order to keep their Queen fed.
Displaying some serious skills in battle, Garin manages to win the shakey trust of high-flying Commander Lin much to the frustration of Tovar, who’s focus it still very much on getting rich by stealing gunpowder, but the longer his buddy spends in the company of these brave soldiers, the more he becomes personally involved in the Nameless Order’s plight.
However, as his focus shifts from nicking black powder to whupping monsters, Garin’s honorable standing is threatened when Tovar teams up with the devious Ballard to achieve his goals, but if everyone doesn’t get on the same page, the Tao Tie will swarm the wall and feast on all the cities that lie beyond.
While it’s kind of weird that a director who made his name crafting gorgeously balletic art house martial arts films would sign on to a Matt Damon monster movie, despite his lush visual style clashing awkwardly with the more traditionally western aspects of the script like an alien skull colliding with stone.
Of course, that visual style is predictably stunning, the director colour coding his characters like they’ve marched right out of an 80’s toy advert and the Wall itself loaded with more gadgets and cool features than a G.I. Joe playset. As a result, the early battle scenes are loaded with cool incident and acres of Legolas-style acrobatics involving the elaborate twanging of arrows that makes Marvel’s Hawkeye seem like he’s needs to book an appointment with his optician. Twirling blades slice out of the stone work while death defying troops bungee of pedestals to stab any marauding alien, quadrupeds off the wall with pointy sticks – it may not be particularly logical (the horribly vulnerable bungee corps definitely have drawn the short straw somewhere), but it sure is impressive to watch. Even the creature designs are initially nifty, their canine stance made all the more twisted by their huge snapping jaws and the added feature of them sporting their eyeball on their shoulders as they tear through background extras like they’ve been taking mauling lessons from Paul Verhoven’s limb-ripping bugs from Klendathu.
However, once the action settles into its groove and the fantasy siege movie comparisons start to mount (a day-glo Helm’s Deep or a sunnier outing for Game Of Thones’ Night Watch both spring to mind), it becomes apparent that the human characters aren’t anywhere near as vibrant as their surroundings. Focus immediately falls on Matt Damon’s apparently Irish rogue (his accent is so ropey I didn’t even realise he had one until the film was half over) who’s arc from selfish mercenary to honorable warrior is about as workmanlike as you’d expect. Elsewhere, the always good value for money Pedro Pascal plays a sidekick role that invokes warm, fuzzy, buddy movie vibes with a typically breezy back and forth. However, real problems start to arise when you realise that the film somehow wastes Willem Dafoe in a simpering supporting role and treats almost all of its Chinese cast as typically gruff, cardboard cutout soldiers with only Andy Lau’s strategist and Jing Tian (beginning a Legendary monster movie hat trick that continued with Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising) managing to stand out amid the stern faces and suits of armour.
It’s this fact that probably didn’t help the movie much when the accusations of white washing arose and while Damon’s character is admittedly ludicrously overpowered with near god-tier archery skills, it has to be said that in a Zhang Yimou fantasy, everyone usually has Anime levels of physical skill. However, Damon is equipped with a magnet which proves to be the creature’s Achilles heel, so I guess he technically does have a special, game changing talent that the other, non-white characters don’t have, but the movie strives to try and keep Garin and Lin on equal footing in order to be able to teach each other important skills and life lessons.
However, while the use of a white character to save the day is somewhat prescient, it’s still a movie with a predominantly Chinese cast that mostly speaks their native language while being film in China – its just a same the movie doesn’t do more with it before it runs out of gas halfway through.
In fact, you could say, it runs into a wall… Greatly.