If there is one thing to be learned of The Great Wall, Zhang Yimou’s attempt to bridge Hollywood bombast with ancient Chinese fantasy, is that Matt Damon cannot play a Saxon for the life of him.
Damon’s accent is almost as peculiar as the hordes of weird CGI monsters that form this film’s central plot, jutting between faux English, vague Irish and American drawl, he feels about as strangely out of place as everything else in this peculiar film. There was some controversy over the decision to render Matt Damon as the protagonist in a China-centric film, with claims of whitewashing and a bland white saviour narrative, though the film itself manages to be dumb in so many other ways that they needn’t have bothered. This is a film which joyously sticks up two fingers at the very notion of intelligence. That is not to say the film at any point reaches Transformers levels of stupid, but Lord of the Rings this is not, sharing more stylistically and thematically with the Warcraft movie and Battle of Five Armies.
The basic plot is as follows; Matt Damon plays as William, a Saxon who apparently has a Norman name and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), a Spaniard, who together journey to China on a quest to attain and bring back Black Powder. After a narrow escape from some “hill tribes” (their exact culture is never specified), they discover The Great Wall of China, and find themselves captured and made to reluctantly help Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) and her ‘Nameless Order’ in guarding the wall against the Tao Tei, vicious green Zergling-like creatures that seek to eat all the people in China and regurgitate their gnawed flesh into their queen’s maw.
This film has the look and feel of an LSD-influenced Dungeons and Dragons session, with the game master having taken approximately a single rushed read-through of the Oriental Adventures rulebook and a wee dram of Domestos. One thing the film does not lack is spectacle, or colour. There is scarcely a shot that is not bathed luridly with the latter, and the film feels laboriously crafted, with battle scenes involving hundreds. It would be churlish not to acknowledge the beautiful set and costume design, which is rich with detail and is considerably more memorable than almost the cast’s efforts to conjure character (Jiang Tian as one exception). The film carries a pleasingly light tone, with dry jokes, particularly involving the Europeans’ bumbling antics helping tide over the quieter stretches (of which there are one too many) and Jing Tian’s character deserves plaudits for providing a female protagonist who is both actively involved, and whose authority and ability to kick ass is scarcely questioned.
It’s simply a shame that the film’s characters have considerably little in the way of any memorable personality, it is difficult to care for what happens to anyone, the Chinese characters are almost silly in their imperiousness and will, while the European protagonists (which excludes Matt Damon, but even feels –too- heroic, and a baffling choice) are selfish and difficult to sympathise with. The CGI has this varnished, greasy look to it that feels sloppy and unfinished, and the battle scenes are confusingly shot, with many odd jump-cuts, camera angles and lack of focus. These scenes, which are intended to carry the film, try their hardest to evoke an epic and tactile battle between good and evil, but it simply doesn’t work because so little of it seems real or physical. The action, which should feel sweeping and monumental, feels drunken and confused instead. There is fun to be had here, but you’d probably be best waiting for this to come out on DvD, after drinking moderately.