What were they trying to keep out?
Zhang Yimou the artful director behind such films as Hero, and House of Flying Daggers helms this unusual action film that feels little like a Yimou film. Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal star as European mercenaries William and Tovar traversing across Asia looking for black powder, a fabled deadly substance perfect for war. During a pursuit from bandits the pair stumble across the Great Wall and are subsequently imprisoned inside. After being taken it becomes clear the wall is currently home to a secret army known as the Nameless Order, and they’re preparing for battle against a monstrous ancient enemy known as the Tao Tei. With few means of escape, William and Tovar must decide whether to pursue the black powder or stay and fight.
Believe it or not this is simply a film about banding together to fight a legion of lizard monsters, nothing more and nothing less. This is the first sign that The Great Wall is not your typical Zhang Yimou film. The second is operatic ballet fights and interesting story have been replaced with tardy dialogue, stiff acting, and an accent by Matt Damon that does not make any sense. When you have a film about lizard monsters I think we can live with an American accent. The vibrant use of colours and grand sweeping shots Yimou is known for can still be found providing the film with a pleasing visual flare, but it’s very much style over substance.
As far as action orientated films go The Great Wall has some really well constructed sequences, but you can’t help but feel they’re 50 shades of Helms Deep. What also detracts from how well these action sequences play out is they go all in during the first sequence. The full extent of the Tao Tei’s power is demonstrated in the first assault on the wall, making subsequent excursions seem frivolous. It’s like going all in at the start of a poker game, you’ve shown your end game before it has even started. As a result the pacing of the film feels backwards, starting with a rush that fades to a fizzle come the credit roll.
Bogging the otherwise paper light plot down is an unnecessary side story involving Willem Dafoe’s character Ballard which ultimately has zero relevance and leads to nothing. Overall The Great Wall is a passable way to spend 103 minutes, it’s light breezy action fare that you might have otherwise found released in the middle of summer. It isn’t a terrible film, but you could be forgiven for expecting better from somebody of Zhang Yimou’s pedigree.