The Great Wall of China is a defensive structure spanning 8850 km along the historical northern borders of China. While it was thought to be visible from the moon, the theory has been debunked several times and at best, it's visible from a low Earth orbit. The Great Wall movie takes advantage of some of the mythology surrounding the wall, its origins and its primary use as a defensive line against invading hordes. Part war epic and part action fantasy, The Great Wall introduces us to the idea that the hostile forces were in fact monsters, re-emerging to launch a full-scale siege every 60 years. We follow two European mercenaries in search of the legendary "black powder" (gunpowder), who find themselves at the mercy of a secret order of Chinese soldiers, who have made it their life's work to prepare for this attack.
Directed by Yimou Zhang whose filmography includes: Hero, The Curse of the Golden Flower, House of Flying Daggers and more recently The Flowers of War, expectations were understandably high. Zhang's body of work is impressive and substantial, despite encountering some tonal imbalances. In The Great Wall, a co-production, he finds himself walking the line between what attracts Chinese and American audiences. While it doesn't have the finesse of his earlier works, it still shows great flair and promise, as if he was adapting a graphic novel.
While The Great Wall received criticism around the nature of the casting with calls of "white saviour", Matt Damon's star quality and grounded history of performances is essential to pinning down this tale. He's supported by the likes of the crooked Willem Dafoe, noble Andy Lau, indomitable Tian Jing and humourous Pedro Pascal as his sidekick, Tovar.
The dazzling visuals, flag-waving call-to-arms and pageantry recall films like Ran and The Curse of the Golden Flower. We are immersed in a spectacular scenario as history and fantasy enmesh to create a beautiful tapestry, recalling the Ming dynasty's altruistic fortitude and reimagining battles with flair and imagination.
Matt Damon may seem slightly out of place, but so did Kevin Costner's American accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. A gifted archer and "prince of thieves", accompanied by a trusted warrior, there's a definite synergy between the films in terms of entertainment value and pulp fiction. While the action adventure of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was more grounded and gritty, both films have a comic twinkle with machismo and one-liners at the ready.
The Great Wall also has many affinities with science fiction action adventure, Starship Troopers, starring Casper von Dien. The epic tour of duty, battles against monstrous creatures, handsome cast, video game simplicity, unflappable lead and die hard camaraderie make them comparable, despite being worlds apart.
Perhaps a better contrast would be The Mummy, a mythological and historical action adventure that also straddles the real and unreal in an enjoyable and entertaining fashion. While steeped in ancient culture, it manages to leverage monuments to spin a tale of romance and high adventure on the back of pure popcorn entertainment.
While comparable with a number of rousing, entertaining and enjoyable popcorn films, The Great Wall doesn't quite have the spirit, substance or CGI to rank amongst them. Matt Damon's solemn performance isn't anything special, the video game plotting makes it all about the action and style, and while you're able to roll with it, the design and execution of the monsters is a bit clunky.
Still, while thinly scripted and bordering on ridiculous, the relentless action, spectacular visuals, ambitious mash-up and quality of the ensemble are good enough to keep you constantly amused. It's not a good film, but a surprisingly enjoyable one, which is made even easier on the ear and eye by 3D IMAX.