A group of European bandits, led by the English archer William (Matt Damon), are lost in the wilderness about northern China. After a night-time attack by a monster kills the entire group save for William and his companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal), they stumble upon the Great Wall of China – defended by an entire army of Chinese warriors dedicated to keeping the monsters at bay.
In recent years the Chinese film market had accelerated in scale and popularity to become the second-largest such market in the world after the USA. This has made Hollywood very conscious to tailor its product, at least in part, for a Chinese audience. This tailoring process has taken a number of forms of late, whether setting key parts of a film in China (Transformers: Age of Extinction), eliminating politically sensitive elements to avoid displeasing the government in Beijing (Doctor Strange), casting popular Chinese actors in supporting roles (Rogue One), and even adding additional scenes in the Chinese edition of the film (Iron Man 3). The Great Wall, released late last year in China and only now in the bulk of other markets, represents a huge step forward in this trend. It is a proper Chinese-American co-production, combining funding from studios in both countries, an international cast, an American-style screenplay and a noted Chinese director: Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers).
It is also, somewhat unfortunately, a very average film. It is crippled by a risk-averse screenplay that aims to please as wide an audience as possible in two countries, and winds up feeling hopelessly generic as a result. It is also visibly suffering from a protracted development process. First set up as a project for American filmmaker Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai), it was rewritten for Zhang Yimou and then rewritten again by Tony Gilroy into the form that was ultimately filmed and released. Six screenwriters are named in the film’s closing titles – and they are just the ones who earned an on-screen credit. All of that rewriting has shaved off pretty much any distinctive elements that might have made the film memorable.
The story elements are immediately familiar to anybody that has watched at least two adventure films. There is a grumpy protagonist out for money and glory who is led to put that aside and become a selfless hero instead. There is a seemingly invincible army of monsters who will all collapse if their queen is killed. There is a white European who comes to a foreign nation and immediately demonstrates himself as a better warrior than everybody there.
It is worth dwelling on that last cliche, because to its mild credit The Great Wall avoids the most egregious aspects of the white saviour complex. While it is true that William is a seemingly supernaturally gifted archer, it is the Chinese advisor Wang (Andy Lau) who comes up with a means of defeating the enemy and it is the commander turned general Lin Mae (Jing Tian) who shares the climax with William on a fifty-fifty basis. It is a half-step in the right direction, and should future Chinese-American films occur – and it seems very likely they shall – I hope to see a few more steps to bring the film to an equal level.
Another story aspect that may require work in future is the underlying politics. Chinese films operate under a relatively strict moral code: villains are always punished, crime does not pay, and state communist ideals are regularly expressed in generally blunt and obvious ways. By contrast The Great Wall struggles a little, effectively trying to force an American undercurrent of individual enterprise at the same time. I suspect for the majority of viewers it does not really harm the film, but it does feel a little odd.
The cast give variable performances. When Matt Damon first appears, with long hair and beard and a weird gruff pseudo-English accent, it feels as if he is auditioning to replace Dennis Quaid as the star of Dragonheart. His performance settles down as the film proceeds, but it always feels a little uncomfortable. He does share some relatively funny banter with Pedro Pascal, which helps to give the film a little bit of levity in between all of the tortured soul-searching over duty and honour. Andy Lau gives the relatively underwritten role of Wang a nice touch of gravitas, but it is a little like getting a Formula One driver to do the milk run. Willem Dafoe is a genuine surprise, sadly of the disappointing variety, playing an English knight named Sir Ballard who has been a prisoner at the Wall for 25 years. It is a bizarrely lazy performance: lazy accent, lazy emotions, and a distinct sense Dafoe is reading his pay cheque at least as often as the screenplay.
Visually the film is rather nice, although its action sequences are front-loaded. The first siege against the Wall by the monstrous Tao Tie is packed with inventive moments and stunts, but every subsequent scene seems a little less exciting and a little less impressive. The climax winds up feeling more functional than exciting. The visual effects are slick and mostly very effective. It is nice to see a Chinese effects film actually have the budget to match its ambitions. The costumes – as they always are in a Zhang Yimou picture – are absolutely gorgeous, and the film engages with a vivid and enjoyable sense of colour.
The Great Wall is a solidly made B-movie. There is a regularly occurring number of action sequences. There are nice visual effects. It looks pleasant to the eye and the performances are mostly fairly enjoyable. Despite its budgets, however, and its international co-production status, The Great Wall lacks ambition. It winds up feeling like half the movie it could have been, despite being a reasonably fun diversion as it is.