The Great Wall, which hurtles us back in time to the Song Dynasty where monsters are more of a threat than mountain bandits , is nothing if not spectacular.
Steeped in immense, Lord of the Rings-epic battle scenes, emotionally-intense exchanges borne of imminent threat and death, and suffused with redemption, hope and greed, it is in many respects the diverting, engrossing blockbuster it sets out to be.
Directed by Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, Hero), it suggests that the Great Wall of China, the long-lasting behemoth that runs the length of northern China, was built to keep out more than the occasional brigand or acquisitonal Mongolian.
The enemy, in fact, are mystical hive-minded hairless wolf-like supernatural creatures called Tao Tei that arrived on a comet, it is suggested, eons earlier, a punishment for a greedy overreaching Emperor, and which now return every sixty years like clockwork to feast on people, grow stronger and perhaps take over the world.
If may sound inordinately fanciful and of course is, but there is something about the intense way that the people in charge of defending China proper from these bloodthirsty hordes, such as Commander Li (Jing Tian) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) treat their enemy that engenders respect and makes you take the threat seriously.
It is perhaps a tad too portentous at times, with gravity seeping through every pore of what is essentially a gloriously over the top monster action film, but for the most part it works, lending The Great Wall a driven focus which it might otherwise have lacked.
One person who is taking it all very seriously after an unexpected run-in with one of the beasts is William Garin (Matt Damon), a mercenary from Europe who along with 20 others including friend Pero Tavor (Pedro Pascal) set out to acquire some of the legendary “black powder” (gunpowder), a mission that the band of warriors for hire initially thought would be a quick in-and-out mission.
It is, naturally enough, nothing of kind and when William finally meets the Chinese garrison guarding that stretch of the then-mint condition Great Wall, his party is down to he and Tovar, and the mission over, with Li and others, including longtime unwilling resident Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), making it clear that no one ever leaves and returns home to Europe, the better to keep all the military secrets safe in Chinese hands.
Though William and Tovar chafe at being made prisoners, they soon prove themselves in battle during the first major attack by the Tao Tei, which includes some incredibly acrobatic, near-balletic fighting by the Chinese warriors including the deadly graceful all-women Crane Corps, and are thereafter treated with respect and deference by their onetime captors.
Trained since a very young age as guns for hire, both William and Tovar plan to grab some gunpowder and hightail it out of there with Ballard at the first available opportunity.
But William, struck with the realisation that he has a chance to be something more than a non-aligned mercenary and that he can actually make a difference in the lives of people he has come to care about – including Li, with whom there seems some narrative flirtation with duty leading to romance – decides to stick around and help the Chinese fight off the insatiable hordes of Tao Tei.
The decision doesn’t go down well with Tovar and Ballard but William is finally a man of purpose, possessed of a loyalty that goes beyond money and which ultimately is the making of him as a man and a soldier.
It may sound a little too neat and trite a transformation but it’s clear from the outset that William is a man in search of something bigger than himself, and they don’t come much bigger than the Great Wall and tens of thousands of Queen-directed Tao Tei, and so his shifting allegiance ends up making a great deal of sense.
Contrary to some reviews which have painted this as another Westerners-save-the-Chinese/non-European power film, William is not the tipping point in the story; yes he grants the Chinese, weary from centuries of fending off the beasts, renewed drive and perspective, but they are never painted as anything less than supremely talented, technologically-advanced people who can manage quite nicely without anyone’s help.
There’s nothing remotely colonial in nature about it and William is simply a fresh set of eyes and a talented new archer to their ranks rather than the guiding messiah who rights their sinking ship.
The film does have its issues.
Gripping though the narrative is and intensely spectacular though the action scenes often are, there is not much depth to either the relationships between many of the characters nor to the historical accuracy of the period.
The ending too seems to arrive suddenly, its resolution a little too well-worn trope heavy and convenient, the wrap-up far too neat and tied with a bow.
But then The Great Wall is an escapist fantasy outing, a film that splashes around mystical splendour and near-apocalyptic portent with a fervour that entirely befits the story it is telling, and which glories in its rich, larger-than-life look and feel.
This is a film that is out to tell an engrossing story and which largely succeeds, even if the narrative does occasionally feel a little threadbare and under-developed at times, and which posits the idea there is redemption to be had even a lifetime of selling of your soul to the highest bidder.
This is visually-impressive fantasy with substance and style that, while not the high point of its genre, and certainly not a match for other films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or indeed The Lord of the Rings, nonetheless delivers a richly-entertaining experience that takes you into a world that is every bit as authentically human as it is bombastically fantastical.
- Viewed Wednesday 8 February 2017.