The name Zhang Yimou is not unknown in the Western world. Though he has immersed himself more down-to-earth dramas in recent years, he gave such sweeping martial arts masterpieces as Hero and House of Flying Daggers to the world. These critically acclaimed films, renowned for their acrobatic feats of martial prowess, character drama and tragedy and splendid editing, have embedded themselves in popular consciousness – over a decade on they are still remembered as defining examples of martial arts movies in the early 20th century. When a director has already built up a reputation so impressive, one must tread carefully – and in this case, the final product is found wanting.
The Great Wall marks a return to the genre for Yimou, a film marked by considerable controversy and accusations of whitewashing surrounding its casting. It is not the first time the director has had a Western actor in his films, as Christian Bale starred in 2012’s Flowers of War. Damon is an accomplished action man and Yimou is a veteran action director, yet the result is something that lacks the striking qualities of its predecessors. Ten years on from his last feature in the field of fisticuffs – Curse of the Golden Flower – Yimou has now elected to run martial arts through a fantastical wringer.
In this universe, the titular Great Wall of China does not exist solely as a means of deterring the encroaching Mongol hordes and as a future tourist trap. Instead, it also acts as a barrier defending the capital and the rest of the mainland from roving extra-terrestrials known as the Taotie. Very loosely based off a symbol relating to Chinese mythology, these creatures are mostly oversized dogs armed with rows of razor-sharp teeth and sporting enough eyes to make arachnids jealous. The wall is manned by a military unit known as the Nameless Order whose soldiers and commanders alike strut around in color-coded armour that has them come across as medieval Power Rangers. Two roving mercenaries, an "Irishman" of questionable accent by the name of William (Matt Damon) and a Spaniard named Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are inadvertently roped into defending the wall after a run-in with one of the creatures, and it is from there that our generic tale emerges.
It’s a by-the-numbers, run of the mill alien invasion story with historical window dressing that attempts to pass itself off as one of the "legends" surrounding the Great Wall’s construction and existence
There’s certainly a lot of spectacle on display, almost from the outset, and while it’s doubtlessly beneficial for audiences who came expecting frenetic action sequences it is heavily detrimental to the characters involved – we don’t even learn their names until after the conclusion of the first proper set piece, with Tovar’s name being mentioned only once throughout the entire film, and considering the movie’s fleeting 104-minute runtime such an approach is more of a drawback than a boon. There’s a few inventive tricks here and there as the film does its damndest to display Chinese military efficiency at work in unique ways, such as hidden pulley-operated blades within the walls and the soldiers of the Crane Troop, an all-female unit led by Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) who operate via essentially bungee-jumping from platforms built on the edges of the wall to thrust their spears into the horde of alien nasties below. The scenes in the opening battle are somewhat evocative of Yimou’s earlier works, and it is a treat to watch – and yet, with so much time spent on preparations for it and the event itself, the flow of the film suffers for it.
At the same time, the feature comes across as lacking in true grandeur and scale and even feels a touch hollow after the impact made by Flying Daggers and Hero. Not merely with regards to the fighting – with a budget of $135 million and standing as the most expensive film to be shot entirely in China, the CGI on display is effective enough, but you are reminded all too frequently, especially in 3D, that the actors are effectively playing out a pantomime and swinging swords and spears at green screens and digitised images. It’s nowhere near as outstandingly egregious as the later Star Wars prequels, say, but there is a constant disconnect that lingers at the back of your mind made all the starker after comparing the action on display here with the mesmerizing sequences from Yimou’s earlier productions.
Little can be said with regards to the plot. It’s a by-the-numbers, run of the mill alien invasion story with historical window dressing that attempts to pass itself off as one of the "legends" surrounding the Great Wall’s construction and existence. With mercenaries as the central characters it has all the standard beats that one would come to expect from such people being the centre of attention – initial reluctance to join the cause, talk of escape with ill-gotten gains, learning to trust others and doing the right thing, and all the other predictable events that accompany such a story. It’s not necessarily to the film’s detriment. It contains some moralising on the nature of warfare and human greed mostly done in the form of conversations between William and Lin which ultimately serves to have the former come out of his shell and have both parties form mutual respect, but it never tries to be anything too grand even if the message on avarice is rather slapdash. This mutual respect also supersedes any forced romance, and this is a nice touch as Damon and Tian play off each other well enough for their shared scenes to be meaningful.
The interactions between characters are mostly serviceable, even if some of them are given far too little focus for viewers to develop an attachment to them despite the film’s insistence, and others, such as Ballard, a fellow foreigner and a conniving language teacher played by Willem Dafoe seem to be awkwardly shoved-in leftovers of what may have been ideas half-picked up from the cutting room floor. Given that the script was bounced about between no less than six writers, including Tony Gilroy and Max Brooks, such a thing may well be a likely possibility – and despite so many writers being involved, even if the dialogue if serviceable, their talents cannot elevate the dialogue above cliché most of the time. The verve and flair put into the action and the leads’ decent interaction, with Pascal and Tian providing some decent quips on top of it, are what keeps this film afloat.
As an action film, it’s passable. As a showcase of rather fantastical Chinese martial prowess and certain customs associated with them, it’s certainly a spectacle in that sense. But in comparison to his previous efforts, Yimou’s action blockbuster falls squarely in the middle of the road. It’s a silly premise that makes for decent fun, and contains a couple of timely if simple messages to take away, but ultimately there are simply better action films available, and better products from Yimou himself.