The Great Wall (dir. Zhang Yimou, 2016) – A time ago, China constructed The Great Wall that remains one of the most awe-inspiring world wonders today. But what were they trying to keep out?
Bland leads and thin mythology let down The Great Wall‘s ambitions to join the giants of the fantasy genre.
Centuries ago, the Chinese had built the Great Wall as a form of border control. But that origin story, or the lack thereof, would not have made for a very compelling movie. Enter Will (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), two European mercenaries in search of rare gunpowder in the East, for the riches the compound entails.
Their thieving quest embroils them in an unexpected foreign war between the Chinese and lizard-like beasts, known as Taotie. Folklore has it that they were sent from Heaven to punish Man for their greed.
Joining the army led by Commander Lin (Jing Tian) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), they take a stand against the violent invasion that takes place every sixty years. And so a new traditional legend is borne, lending a bigger purpose to the ancient fortification of the East.
In no time, the troops of both monsters and men fall in place, battle-ready. Hidden weaponry rises from within the Wall, a secret arsenal befitting the epic tale that goes the limit for visual grandiose.
Now, if only that fantastical mythology of the enemy had been given its due development. Instead, we get a generic creature feature with no real distinction, existing purely as an excuse for set pieces. Thin establishment sees Taotie take on the role of dull antagonists, out for no more than blood.
Uninteresting human leads do no better, expounding more than they emote. Questionable choices worsen matters. It was never clear why the Crane Troop has to lance the monsters by jumping off the Wall, when the archers are doing fine from a distance. Ineffectual formation continually leads the soldiers to unnecessary early deaths.
The absence of any intelligent strategy and narrative complexity feels disappointing, given China’s track record in shrewd strategies and tactical battles, both in rich history and on film. Playing by the numbers, the bland lead-up ends up as dreary as its underwhelming and chaotic finale.
The eventual heroics stick close to the rule book of the monomyth. Costume design remains the most impressive throughout the numbing showdown, which says something. As the closing trudges towards predictable victory, the disappointment throbs. It seems Hollywood “whitewashing” may be the least of The Great Wall‘s myriad issues.