In business terms, think of The Great Wall as a bridge across the Pacific, a co-production between the US and China allowing Hollywood access to the Chinese cinema market, which is reported to be the fastest growing in the world. On a pure narrative level it is a big, stony hunk of nothing and even Matt Damon, who is the strongest link, looks hopelessly out of place – and that’s before you even consider the odd Fargo-esque accent.
Of course, this works for him in the early part of the film. His character William is a fish out of water or more accurately, a mercenary in the Gobi desert – stunningly captured in sunset hues – who along with Spanish cohort Tovar (Pedro Pascal of Narcos fame) is searching for a fabled treasure called “black powder”. This, of course is gunpowder, a weapon that will revolutionise warfare at this non-specific period in history and make them rich.
But the men are thrown off course by something most unexpected and in a film that has already signposted its intentions to philosophise earnestly on the human condition, it really does feel like a random intrusion when the CGI beastie – which looks something like a cross between a Komodo dragon and the hound demons from Ghost Busters – tries to take a bite out of William.
Having gotten out of that sticky situation, William and Tovar immediately fall into the clutches of the Nameless Order, noble warriors (naturally) who guard an outpost on the Great Wall, a structure built with the specific purpose of keeping those rabid lizards out. Straightaway they get to see the Order in action, wonderfully choreographed in their defence with ladies in bright armour looking like bluebirds as they swoop down to spear their prey.
You would expect nothing less than visual splendour from director Zhang Yimou, the director of Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). There are high-flying crane shots over the wall to take in the majesty of this man-made feat and the camera moves seamlessly from inside to out while the wide, rugged landscape beyond promises an adventure with epic scope.
Alas, the story doesn’t open out in the same way. After the introductory battle, it very quickly becomes claustrophobic and monotone. William impresses the locals with combat skills and makes a deeper impression on the pretty yet steely Commander Lin (Jing Tian), who inevitably has much to teach this soldier of fortune about honour and sacrifice. Meanwhile, big-name actors in China Andy Lau (star of Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers) and Hanyu Zhang as her superiors are reduced to echoing these platitudes between suspicious looks.
William can only prove himself through battle and Yimou moves as quickly as possible from one skirmish to the next, allowing no room for characters – much less relationships – to develop. Instead, the moral of the story is driven home hard in blunt exchanges of dialogue. Willem Dafoe draws the shortest straw in a pointless role as a fellow Westerner gone stir-crazy after 25 years held captive.
For all their high-minded ideals, it turns out the Order have a Mafia-like philosophy on keeping interlopers in. The mythology of the Tao Tei (the demons) hasn’t been thought through either, and apart from the obvious use of CGI, it all feels a bit naff given the stupidly simple rules that are established on how to defeat them. The climactic scenes are less tense because of that and a heavy reliance on clichés.
Before its (successful) release in China, the controversy around the film was about Hollywood “whitewashing”, with Matt Damon perceived as the blue-eyed hero dispatched to save China. In fact, he stands for the capitalist West – at least at the beginning – but the contrast with the oh-so honourable Chinese warriors is just as tired, especially when the story reaches for lofty ideals and barely rises up on its tiptoes to see what life is like on the other side. Rather than being spiritually uplifted or emotionally stirred, The Great Wall is grey, cold and immovable and it leaves you stupefied, as though you just walked into it.
The Great Wall is related in cinemas on Friday 17 February