While it’s arguably insensitive to release a movie about a big wall given the current news cycle, this hasn’t deterred Universal. The Great Wall, whose title and very being invites accusations of hubris, is as big, daft, paper-thin and transparently China-chasing as you expected it to be, but on the plus side it might make you feel like 3D’s finally had its day.
It takes a certain type of Western arrogance to make a play for the Chinese market through a fantasy reimagining of its greatest landmark’s history, but hey, this is Hollywood, baby. Consider the implications of a Chinese blockbuster pitched aggressively at American theatres, telling how Mount Rushmore was attacked by aliens but only survived because Michelle Yeoh defended it. But then: this is a US-Chinese co-production, shot entirely in China, with a mainly Chinese cast and by a Chinese director. Good or bad, you can’t attribute the whole thing to Tinseltown.
If anything, its dual heritage gives it a keen sense of what’ll sell across both markets. There was a fair bit of press about the white saviour narrative when The Great Wall was announced, and Matt Damon’s woke credentials are sufficient that you wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the proof’s in the pudding. Up he rocks, a European of uncertain accent called William, looking for valuable ‘black powder’ to steal with his Spanish mate, and they get captured by the Chinese army who defend the wall.
Defend it from what? The Tao Tei: a bunch of big hungry alien lizard-dogs, the product of a meteor, intent on breaching the wall and eating everyone beyond it. They can run and climb and bite and God knows what else. All a bit of a shock for (Irish? I feel like maybe he’s Irish) William and his mate, but the Chinese warriors are well prepared for them.
It’s here that The Great Wall gives its hosts their due: rather than show the army helpless without Great White Matt to save them, it lets us know they’re organised, mighty and nattily colour-coordinated. A well-mounted early sequence, which Damon handily explains to his friend for our benefit, shows them defending the wall using inventive medieval technology: all giant cogs, wooden trebuchets and big flaming metal balls to fling at the Tao Tei. It’s here that the 3D sort of works, giving a sense of depth, but not scale: like last year’s Warcraft, it desperately wants to be BIG, but makes the mistake of thinking 3D is enough to achieve that.
There are scenes where, as usual, the 3D lets it down, and the close-quarters fighting can’t be seen clearly enough to be appreciated. But – hey! – there’s a lot of slow motion employed to highlight much of the good stuff, with Damon showboating through some rad William Tell-style bow-and-arrow tricks, just stopping short of doing the wink and the gun to the camera afterwards. On the plus side, there are good turns by Jing Tian as Commander Lin, the army’s leader and William’s nearly-love interest, and Hong Kong cinema giant Andy Lau, whose presence yields the tickling fact that Damon is now playing opposite the guy whose character in Infernal Affairs formed the basis for his in The Departed.
A lot of the dialogue is in subtitled Mandarin, unusually for a tentpole film like this, which is something I’d usually applaud for its adherence to realism in the knowledge that it might be unpopular with mainstream audiences. Here it misses the point, though: I watched this, as should anyone who enjoys big, silly films, on a giant screen in 3D. Reading subtitles in this environment is both physically difficult and a misreading of audience intent, as it forces you to focus on something other than the big slow-motion monster that’s about to eat your nose off. This cuts both ways: in China a lot of it will be in subtitled English, causing the same problems, not that this seems to have dented its box-office returns much.
The 3D is where the problem is, overall: The Great Wall’s entire raison d’etre is to be in 3D and have big monsters and explosions fly towards your face for a couple of hours. The technology, which seems to be dwindling in popularity in the West, is still big business in Asia, which explains the overreliance on it here, but for me it felt slightly old-fashioned even just a few short years on from 3D’s most recent boom period. It reminded me of watching 2012’s Wrath Of The Titans, which was such a transparent exercise in throwing 3D shapes towards you and not bothering with much else that it feels like it’s from another age.
As an exercise in US-Chinese co-productions it’s an interesting one, and despite its reliance on a Hollywood narrative it feels like it’ll find a happier home in the Far East. But big productions are global concerns these days, and in the West we can’t expect everything to be tailored to our tastes. You wonder whether they’ll pay for it in Mexico, though.