No one should come to see The Great Wall expecting a literary experience.
Early reviews for The Great Wall were so negative that I went in to the screening without a lot of expectations—and to my surprise, actually had a pretty good time watching it. It’s no Hamlet, to be sure, but it’s an enjoyable fantasy action flick with some great visuals and far more lively than, say, any of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies or the remake of The Magnificent Seven.
Nearly everything in The Great Wall is preposterous, beginning with the story. It’s the 11th century AD and two Western mercenaries, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal, aka Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones) have ventured deep into China in search of black powder (gunpowder). They’re not having a lot of luck—after escaping one gang of bandits and a mysterious monster which they later learn is a Taotie, they’re captured by the Nameless Order, a band of super-fighters who patrol the Great Wall and are led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and Deputy Commander Lin (Jing Tian).
Although William and Tovar don’t get far with their cover story about being traders, the fact that they managed to survive an attack of the Taotie (they even hacked off one of its limbs, which they display to the Nameless Order leadership) wins them some respect, as does a display of their fighting skills. Lucky for William and Tovar, the Nameless Order could use some help right about now—the Westerners have bumbled into their turf just as the Taotie are attacking, as they do every 60 years. As with the Night Watch on Game of Thrones, the job of the Nameless Order is to repel the invaders so they don’t reach the rest of China; instead of an ice wall to defend, they have the Great Wall. The Taotie are truly fearsome killing machines, and they just love human flesh, but they have one big weakness—all but the queen are drones, so if you kill the queen, the rest of the pack is pretty much helpless. They’re also sensitive to magnetism, and you will want to remember both those points because they will come in handy later.
The weak point of The Great Wall is the script, particularly the dialogue, which often sounds like a chopsocky dub of a third-rate martial arts picture. The screenplay is credited to Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy, and the original story is credited to Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz, a fairly distinguished group of writers who should have been able to turn out something better than what ended up on the screen. Then again, maybe it was a case of too many cooks, or screenplay by committee—who knows? As far as having one of the white dudes prove to be the greatest warrior of them all, I’m just going to classify it as an attempt to sell tickets globally.
As with Roland Emmerich movies, no one should come to see The Great Wall expecting a literary experience. The draw is spectacle and on that score director Yimou Zhang and his crew more than deliver. Excess is the very lifeblood of this type of picture (remember how Lone Wolf used to kill about fifty guys single-handedly at the end of every Lone Wolf and Cub?) and there are enough amazing battle scenes and logic-defying stunts to make you forget all about some of the more nonsensical aspects of the story line. I saw it in 3D, and that’s definitely the way to go—it makes all those spectacular wide shots and heated battle scenes look just that much greater. | Sarah Boslaugh