While watching Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s first English language film, it is hard to sidestep the obvious US-Chinese co-production elements. The most blatant of these is the casting of Matt Damon in the central role of William Garin, a Western mercenary in search of gunpowder. After a late night attack by a strange demon, the only two men of the gang left alive are William and his Spanish companion Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal). On the run, chased by a tribal group, they end up confronted by a colossal wall. Captured by the guardians of the wall, they are handed over to the elite army known as the Nameless Order.
The Nameless Order’s primary responsibility is to keep at bay an attack by creepy alien-like monsters that rise up every 60 years to feed. The army of scaly, four-legged, green-blooded Tao Tei must feed their Queen in order to multiply and survive.
The film begins with information about the Wall – its height, length, and mythology surrounding it. This story, we are told, is an exploration of one such legend – and it’s a bizarre one.
Set in medieval China, the epic boasts a multi-cultural cast including Jin Tian as Lin, the commander of the Nameless Order, and Andy Lau as chief strategist Wang. William Dafoe lurks around serving no real purpose.
When William Garin offers the hand of a slain monster to his captors, their changed demeanour suggests that something evil is afoot. Then comes the realisation that The Great Wall is not a Last Emperor-type historical drama but, in fact, a creature feature with echoes of World War Z and The Game of Thrones (the Night’s Watch protecting The Wall from White Walkers) set in a Chinese Middle Earth. When William shows his exemplary skills at archery and impeccably synchronised attacking style with Pedro, the Nameless Order is suitably impressed and welcomes them into their fold.
The language shifts between English and Chinese, with Commander Lin being the only person on the Wall fluent in English. Though the timeframe is ancient, the spoken language is sometimes rather modern. The lack of logic mounts. Where have the Tao Tei come from? If they only attack every 60 years, why have the humans not figured out how to weed them out or overpower them?
The Great Wall is a far cry from director Zhang Yimou’s breathtaking Raise the Red Lantern (1991), starring the gorgeous Gong Li, Red Sorghum (1987) or even The House of Flying Daggers (2004). While there are flashes of the visual spectacle and artistic use of colours you have come to expect from Zhang, that’s where the comparisons to his past work end.
Then there’s Damon, as a medieval Jon Snow. You can only surmise that there must have been a fat pay cheque for the Oscar-nominated actor to be a part of something so undercooked and soulless.