Sometimes having low expectations of a film is no bad thing. There’s always the chance of a pleasant surprise. The Great Wall has been taking something of a buffeting – references to banging your head against a brick one and the like – and when the publicity material refers to the 1700 years it took to build, the impression of a long haul is unavoidable.
So, is it really that bad? No. But it’s not that great either. The sad thing is that has all the ingredients to be considerably better than it is. For a start, there’s an A lister heading up the cast list – Matt Damon no less, as a mercenary who’s in China to get his hands on some gunpowder and take it back to his master. But he and companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are captured by the Chinese on the Great Wall and unexpectedly find themselves helping them defend it from hoards of monsters.
There’s more. A budget in the region of $150 million which, presumably, was lavished on the special effects. And a director with a strong reputation. Yimou Zhang was behind both Hero and House Of Flying Daggers, but his first venture into the English language gets nowhere near that standard. What he gives us is flat footed and clichéd.
Visually, you can see that the money has been reasonably well spent. Admittedly, the wall itself is too perfectly constructed for words, but the action sequences are plentiful and each one seems to be designed to out-do the previous one. The villains of the piece are bloodthirsty dinosaur-like creatures who emerge out of the deep Chinese mists, destroying everything in their path and swarming up the wall and the pagodas in the capital city like the zombies from World War Z. No surprise, then, that Max Brooks, who wrote the original novel, had a hand in the story for this one as well. Other visual highlights include a group of acrobatic women soldiers, whose main means of attack is to bungee-jump from platforms on high, armed with spears and running the risk of being chomped in half. In fact, the overhead shots are the highlight of the film and work very well.
That’s more than can be said for the story, which is basic, hackneyed and duly relegated into second place behind the action. Poor Matt Damon is saddled with probably the worst dialogue of his career and there are moments when you’d swear that was a twinge of embarrassment on his face. Nor does his character show much in the way of development: we’re told he’s supposed to be a vicious murderer but we never see any signs of it because all the killing he does is for a good cause. If he was after redemption, he got it – and in less than two hours.
When the action’s underway, The Great Wall manages to hold on to your attention, but when it reverts to the storyline, you’re faced with two choices: old fashioned boredom or wondering why Willem Dafoe’s superfluous character is there. A bit of trimming here and there and he would have been gone – and nobody would have been any the wiser. The talents invested in the film deserved better and, as the ending is open enough to leave room for a sequel, perhaps they’ll get it. Or perhaps we should be getting those “brick” puns ready now…
The Great Wall opens across UK cinemas from today (Friday, 17th February)
A lifelong lover of films, I'm at last living the proverbial dream - as a film critic and radio presenter. My blog and podcast, both called Talking Pictures, are award nominated, and I'm heard rabbiting away about movies to my heart's content every Friday morning on BBC Surrey and BBC Sussex. Favourite film? The Third Man. Career highlight to date? Interviewing Woody Harrelson in his trailer at Pinewood!