Director: Yimou Zhang
Starring: Matt Damon, Tian Jang, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin
Witten by: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, (story) Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz
Running Time: 103 mins
Release date: 17th February 2017
When acclaimed director Yimou Zhang is behind the camera, there is cause for celebration. With a string of hit imaginative and beautifully films behind him like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower to his credits, you know that the film is going to be stunning to look at as well as mystical and majestic. So what has gone wrong with his first English language film? A bizarre tale that is linked with the legend of the Great Wall of China. The look is still there. The story isn’t.
A mercenary, William, and his companion, Tovar, are heading to China, hoping to trade for black powder when they come under attack. Killing whatever the attacker was, they are soon captured by an elite army that defends the Great Wall of China. Convincing them that they killed a creature, the wall soon becomes apparent when it is the battleground between the army and a horde of monster, trying to break through to get to the major cities. William, an expert archer, joins the army while his friend has other ideas.
This film is odd. A massive production (the biggest filmed in China) does have Zhang’s visual flair. There is no denying that the costumes are stunning and the production values are very high. Yet what doesn’t quite work is the casting and the creatures. The action sequences and set pieces also seem fairly pedestrian when you compare the imagination that he uses in his films, particularly the bamboo field fight in House of Flying Daggers, one scene that is not only glorious to look at but is brimming with ideas.
Here we have thousands of computer generated creatures storming the wall in scenes reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings and World War Z, except strangely they aren’t as impressive as those films. Maybe it’s a case of less is more. The creatures, like savage dogs with enormous jaws, are being commanded by a queen that appears to have a passing resemblance to the queen in the Alien films.
The incidental plotline, in which William’s companion wants to steal the black powder hidden in the vaults of the wall, seems forced and unexciting. Which is the film’s main problem? With all the stunts, arrows flying and swordplay, this lacks any real adrenaline moments. There is very little tension and it never rises to a mild interest. Thankfully, the film is short and doesn’t drag on but it needed to have an injection of tense thrills.
The other problem is casting Matt Damon as the lead. Damon is a likeable lead but here he seems misplaced. Playing the mercenary, his accent is all over the place and you can never really put your finger on where he is supposed to come from. There are moments when you look at Damon and you serious wonder if he is enjoying himself. Willem Dafoe pops up as a prisoner of the wall, who does his best Gollum impression and his level of performance is what is needed to keep the attention.
If the film had been more bonkers and didn’t take itself quite as seriously, then there could be miles of fun. Instead, The Great Wall has a lovely look to it but that’s about it. Perfectly serviceable, throwaway entertainment but it won’t stay in the mind longer than a journey home and the sad thing is the waste of an extremely impressive director.