European mercenaries searching for black powder become embroiled in the defence of the Great Wall of China against a horde of monstrous creatures.
Director Yimou Zhang has a large body of work with House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower some of his better known films particularly in western cinema. His latest project is the newest endeavour from China-Hollywood co-productions and sees Matt Damon in the lead role for this Chinese fantasy film set against the backdrop of the Great Wall of China.
The story of the film brings Damon’s character, a mercenary from all over but with a detectable Irish accent, along with his companion played by Pedro Pascal, to the Great Wall of China in search of trading opportunities only to find a large and well-formed army positioned on the wall to defend against a monstrous incursion.
In a story sense that’s as complex as things get, Damon’s character background is hinted at without being explored in any detail, his travelling companion receives less attention, with Willem Dafoe seemingly only appearing to service a minor plot point. From there it all remains straight forward, the few Chinese characters given things to do are largely servicing to personalise the army on the wall for the audience, while the vicious invaders called the Tao Teis are just left as monstrous foes for the humans to fight.
Given some of the writing talent working on the screen play (Tony Gilroy in particular) it’s disappointing there isn’t more depth in what’s going on, it ultimately feels like a huge missed opportunity for what was an ambitious production.
Shortly into the opening act the film delivers a large scale action sequence that makes sound use of the Great Wall setting however it’s so elaborate and effective in the opening act that there are few surprises left for the later parts of the film, other than a quick location change which is shoehorned into the finale.
To the films credit the set design and costuming is interesting and enjoyable to watch, but it’s simultaneously done a disservice by the visual effects of the film which rarely hold up very well, particularly in the scenic landscape shots where the film really could have impressed in a visual sense.
The creature design is unsettling and serves as a fitting monster to unify the main characters but beyond being setup as a foe to kill the film doesn’t do much with them. It also falls prey to the clichéd weakness subplot where the random item that happens to be in the heroes possession early in the film, is the Achilles heel to the otherwise unbeatable creatures by the end of the film.
The cast can only do so much to elevate the material they are working with and while the support cast is relatively solid across the board, Damon is far from his best here, with little opportunity to stand out or make grand standing speeches his performance is kept low key for the entire film.
Ultimately The Great Wall isn’t memorable and doesn’t have a whole heap going for it, it does however deliver some fun epic scale battle scenes with vicious creatures battling an army on the Great Wall of China, this alone will be worth the price of admission for some.
I’m giving The Great Wall two out of five stars, it’s in cinemas across Australia from Thursday 16th February 2017.