The Great Wall (長城) isn’t a bad film. The problem with it is that there’s simply not enough about it that, well, works. The story is, if we’re being kind, slight — William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal, last seen under a lot of pressure in Game Of Thrones) are western merchants on their way east to try to lay their hands on some “black powder” that, they’ve heard, makes quite a bang on the battlefield. Half-way across China, they find themselves on the wrong side of a rather large wall, and after being taken prisoner in one of the fortifications along the wall, they become engaged in an attack on the wall by the teotai, a horde of alarmingly savage creatures somewhere between orcs and dragons that attack the wall every sixty years, for some swiftly-passed-over reason that appeared to have something to do with these possibly alien creatures taking offence at Chinese consumerism. William and Tovar end up being a little tasty with bow and arrow, and William earns the trust of Commander Lin, leader of the Crane Corps, one of five squadrons of the Nameless Order of soldiers who man the wall.
So if there’s precious little plot, then there should be something else to make The Great Wall warrant the $135 million budget that director Zhang Yimou blew on his first English-language feature. Well, there’s the costumes. The five corps of the Nameless Order wear striking colour-themed uniforms that make the numerous formation-marching scenes as they make their way from bit of the wall to another quite spectacular. And there’s a rather wonderfully balletic quality to many of the battle scenes — as Lin’s Crane Corps women in their blue ancient Chinese lycra swoop down on the teotai, while hanging from ancient Chinese winch-bungees, are filmed with eye-catching elegance. Indeed, many of the set-piece scenes of the soldiers on the wall moving in formation, from the massed marching to the signal drummers pounding out their messages with nunchuks on taiko, are quite superbly filmed, but there’s something a little weightless, a little insubstantial, about the whole film.
Maybe it’s the faintly derivative feeling of much of the story. Yes, the Chinese Great Wall was built long before George RR Martin was born, but it’s hard to watch a story about a wall patrolled by an elite band of warriors keeping out a monstrous enemy without certain inevitable comparisons raising their heads. The monsters themselves, the landscape they inhabit, and the way they were filmed as they rampage, bring to mind Lord Of The Rings. And even the battle sequences, with mechanised weapons raining fire and arrows down on teotai, feels more than simply inspired by classic martial-arts films.
Maybe it’s the lack of meaningful characterisation. Damon and Pascal are asked to develop a buddy relationship, and it fails rather clangingly, with what we imagine was written to be sparklingly witty banter failing with lines like “Think they’ll hang us now? I could do with the rest” honking their way through the script. But the blame doesn’t lie only with the western characters. Tian Jing does her best as Lin, but her English isn’t quite up to the task, and her Chinese colleagues are given even less to work with than Damon, Pascal, and Willem Dafoe, as lunatic-wide-eyed as ever as Ballard, who’s been held at the wall for twenty-five years. And, while perhaps we’re being a little picky, William claims to have fought “for Harold against the Danes,” which, presumably, puts him in the middle of the eleventh century, and then for Spain, which didn’t really emerge as a distinct polity for a few centuries. But that’s more forgivable than his accent, which isn’t quite American, certainly isn’t English, and flirts with Irish when Damon can remember to slip in a little burr.
This is one of the first big-budget Hollywood films to have been made entirely in China, and it was funded in no small part by Chinese money. Its nods to a potential Chinese audience are clear — surprisingly, the dialogue between Chinese characters is in Chinese, with English subtitles for the audience and Lin translating for the westerners. But it’s very much a western film, focusing on a pair of western protagonists who come dangerously close to white-saviour territory. It’s not, then, a bad film. It’s just hopelessly overwrought, sumptuous and gorgeous, but fundamentally lacking in substance.