Zhang Yimou has made, in his time, Hero, The House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower and Raise the Red Lantern. The Great Wall cost more than any of them, and it’s worse than any of them. Weirdly, in western terms it probably makes more sense than any of his great movies, since it has a plot which would fit on a beermat and could still be understood if you’d drunk all the beer in the pub. To this day I have no idea what Curse of the Golden Flower was about, and I have my doubts about whether I really understood House of Flying Daggers. It doesn’t really matter because in addition to making them look absolutely gorgeous, Yimou somehow found a way to make us care about the people running around in magnificent costumes whacking the hell out of each other.
Part of the problem is something which you might think at first glance would be a cool notion. What, I’m sure you’ve sometimes asked, if Han Solo was the hero of Star Wars? Han is cool. Luke is not cool. Wouldn’t Star Wars be more fun if the cool guy was the hero instead of the comic relief best buddy? Yeah, now that I’ve said it out loud, it’s starting to sound shaky isn’t it? But that’s pretty much the way they went with the script of The Great Wall. You’ve got a whole clutter of Chinese heroes, trained to within an inch of their lives, poised to fight off a plague that threatens not just their civilisation but the whole world. Wow enough, as Jurassic World would say. That’s a story. What more do you need?
How about a couple of scruffy European bandits who’ve come to China hoping to steal some gunpowder to make their fortunes back in Europe? What if we make them not just the viewpoint characters, but the heroes who reluctantly save the day? And how about if we make them morons? THAT was the way the script team went. And on it goes. Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal, two perfectly decent actors who I pretty much like, fit into this movie in the way that three gallons of winter weight engine oil fit into salad dressing. I kept hoping that there was a Chinese cut which made them into complete buffoons, which would at least have made some kind of sense.
Meanwhile over in Yimou’s actual wheelhouse, the spectacle is magnificent. Much of it doesn’t make a button of sense, but it looks so good you can’t really quibble. Well maybe you could quibble at the idea that the drum corps work in full armour and all their drum signals sound exactly the same, but that doesn’t make the setup one bit less colourful. The Europeans are wrecking everything and getting in the way of the Chinese performers putting in any real character work, but the setpieces are exactly what you would have expected if you gave Zhang Yimou a tonne of money and told him to fight a vast horde of unstoppable monsters using anything cool he could think of. But as is so often the case, more is less. The scenes of the Crane Troop swan diving off the Great Wall on bungee cords to shish kebab monsters are breathtaking, but they pale against the bamboo forest fight in House of Flying Daggers which has the same balletic elegance, but a much better focus.
The good news, in a weird way, is that it looks like The Great Wall will not make its money back in western markets, so with any luck Chinese cinema will go back to doing what it does well without trying to shoe horn in things that just make it all worse.