While we medieval Europeans were still warding off the common cold by wearing chicken feet on a necklace, China had built The Great Wall. But, as this film would have us believe, they weren’t keeping out northern invaders – they were defending the world from a race of monstrous lizards.
Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal are a couple of European mercenaries on the hunt for gunpowder when they stumble across the Great Wall under attack from the lizards. The film has to be commended for leaping straight into the action, and within 15 minutes you’re watching an extended and visually impressive siege (this is the most expensive Chinese movie ever made).
The Great Wall is being defended by a Power Rangers-esque army, colour-coded by their special skills. And one of the commanders of those corps is – gasp! – a woman! Luckily Commander Lin (Jing Tian) is genuinely there for her military prowess rather than to be a love interest for the male, western lead.
Thanks to director Zhang Yimou, the film looks incredible. The CGI is impressive, the Great Wall has all manner of fun defences (ranging from the practical to the ridiculous), and the sets and costumes are gorgeous.
But while the film might look good, it’s basically a disaster. Matt Damon, normally known for his integrity, seems like he’s reading all of his dialogue from massive placards. Attempts at humour are forced and embarrassing and the only reason Willem Dafoe is there at all is to explain why some of the Chinese characters speak English.
This is a story told in broad brushstrokes, and it suffers from the clash of Chinese and Hollywood storytelling methods. Were the whole thing a Chinese enterprise, without trying to appeal to a Western audience too, it could have embraced the OTT Chinese style more and it would have worked much better.
Instead, what we’re left with is something that tries to please two very different audiences, but will probably annoy both. But at least it sticks to the action and keeps the running time short.