This massive Chinese-American co-production suffers from thin characters, but visually it's outstanding.
What's the best part about making the most expensive film ever produced in a country of over one billion people? One word: 'extras'. All the computer wizardry in the world can't compete with the visual feast that is thousands of actual humans teeming across a screen with balletic precision, especially when they're dressed like Terracotta Warriors after a Taubmans Colour Chart treatment. Red archers, purple foot soldiers and blue 'crane spear wielders' form the basis of China's secret Great Wall defence, and they're an absolute delight to behold throughout famed director Zhang Yimou's first English language epic of the same name.
The concept of a giant wall built to keep out illegal aliens receives more of a literal rendering in this supernatural saga that sees China's army pitted against waves of other-worldly beasts. Spawning from a distant, meteorite-affected mountain, these grotesque monsters inexplicably only attack the wall once every sixty years. Just as curious is China's determination to keep the threat a secret from the rest of the world.
Thrust into the mix are western mercenaries William Garoi (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Game of Thrones' Pedro Pascal), whose perilous search for the fabled 'black powder' of the Chinese alchemists sees them stumble unwittingly into the middle of this centuries-old conflict. Fears of another Hollywood 'white-washing' are, however, quickly dispensed with, for it's the Chinese who consistently prove to be the smarter, braver and more honourable participants in both life and in battle.
It's refreshing, certainly, but hardly a surprise, for in addition to 'extras' there's another critical, one-word answer to the original question posed: 'audience'. Hollywood's increasing flirtation with a US-Chinese cinematic co-op stems in no small part from the desire to access one of the largest movie-going markets in the world. At a cost of $135 million, The Great Wall represents the first out-and-out attempt to make that union a reality. Damon might be a big deal in the West, but in The Great Wall he's surrounded by some of the biggest names in Chinese entertainment, including Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng, Kenny Lin Gengxin, Jing Tian and K-Pop star Lu Han.
The problem with a film (and cast) of this size, however, is that it comes at the expense of character. None of the principals receive anything more than a cursory backstory and even less of an arc moving forward. The Chinese generals are unflinching archetypes, while the westerners are, for the most part, untrustworthy slaves to greed. The consequence is a lack of emotional investment on the part of audiences, who'll respond to each new death with pronounced apathy.
Given The Great Wall's style and setting, comparisons with Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers are both fair and inevitable, and – at least visually – Zhang's film more than meets the challenge. Its costuming, in particular, sets it amongst the finest we've seen in a long time, yet its threadbare characters and generic plot leave much to be desired. Whether such an expensive gamble ultimately pays off for the movie's producers, only time will tell. Still, as the first major step in cinema's US-China alliance, there's at least enough here to offer reserved optimism for the future.