The most expensive movie ever made in China is a historical-fantasy-action saga directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon, Jing Tian and a horde of ravenous CGI beasts.
Is it good? Well, no. But at times it possesses the kind of nutty magnificence you might expect from Chinese master Zhang lending his practiced, elegant hand to what is essentially a hyper-inflated B-grade monster-movie.
“> UNIVERSAL PICTURES Matt Damon
Zhang, who has helmed such wuxia films as House of Flying Daggers and Hero, as well as dead-serious dramas like Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, does what he can with this massive American-Chinese co-production, which, like many recent international blockbusters, is less about global culture and more about global capital and the pragmatic mixing of Asian money and Hollywood stars.
This relationship may be financially practical, but it can also be awkward and unwieldy (like that point in Transformers 4 when the action suddenly and arbitrarily moves east). In the case of The Great Wall, it’s a shotgun-movie marriage not helped by a strained script and stiff “epic-style” acting.
Damon plays European mercenary William, who is first seen traversing the dangerous Gobi Desert with fellow fighter Tovar (Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones). Drawn to Song Dynasty China by rumours of the terrible power of gunpowder, they are hoping to make their fortune as medieval arms dealers when they are captured by the Nameless Order, a fearsomely armed and ferociously skilled military force tasked with protecting the Great Wall from attack by… what, exactly?
Though the film’s scripters are American, it’s made clear that the battle against the taotei will be won not with William’s Western-style individualism but with the traditional Chinese values of teamwork, duty, self-discipline, sacrifice to the greater good and all-round technological awesomeness.
The cast is also more balanced than the Damon-centric movie posters suggest. While the European characters speak English, there’s also a lot of dialogue in subtitled Mandarin, spoken by such Asian stars as Zhang Hanyu and Eddie Peng, as well as Chinese-born K-Pop star Lu Han.
Ultimately, though, the characters, European and Chinese alike, are flat and predictable. While the battle scenes will offer some compensations, especially for anyone missing the orc action from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Great Wall doesn’t really hold up.
This is a humongous movie built on flimsy foundations.