The Great Wall, review: 'Watching it feels like repeatedly banging your head against one'

Director: Zhang Yimou; Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe. 12A cert, 103 mins.

One thing The Great Wall gets absolutely right is the walliness, because watching it feels like repeatedly banging your head against one. This fantastically tedious eyesore – a bilingual fantasy epic from Zhang Yimou – allegedly heralds a new era of artistic collaboration between Hollywood and China, as that country’s cinema-goers become a dominant force at the global box-office. As things have turned out, it’s hard to think of an equivalent-but-in-reverse cultural mélange that could match it for sheer, tin-eared fatuousness: perhaps a CGI-heavy remake of Gone with the Wind that swapped out Rhett Butler for Fu Manchu.

Matt Damon stars as a medieval Irish mercenary who finds himself in Song Dynasty China on a quest to find gunpowder – the fabled substance that “turns air into fire” – which he hopes to bring back to the West. His search takes him not to a city or a busy port, as you might expect, but the middle of a vast and almost entirely uninhabited desert, where one night he and his travelling party are attacked by a monstrous beast. Damon kills it and its body tumbles down a hitherto-unseen bottomless pit, but he manages to lop off a paw, which a local Chinese garrison identifies as belonging to a Tao Tie – a man-eating, four-legged Orc thing, seemingly millions of which live inside a nearby crashed meteor. Every 60 years they emerge en masse and lay siege to the Great Wall of China, in the hope of reaching the nearby ancient capital of Bianliang and feasting on the residents.

As luck would have it, it’s coming up for Tao Tie tea time, and soon enough Damon and his Spanish companion Tovar (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal) get to witness an attack firsthand. The sequence allows the two westerners to do much deferential forelock-tugging towards the Chinese military strength, discipline and ingenuity on show, which entails bungee-jumping lancers and giant pairs of scissors, but is a fraction as entertaining as those gimmicks suggest. 

When the Tao Tie have been driven back, the bearded, wild-haired Damon disappears for a shower and shave, then emerges looking like – well, like Matt Damon, to warm applause. His new look catches the eye of commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), and after proving his prowess with a bow, he becomes an unofficial part of the resistance effort. This archery sequence is one of a very few sequences here that may appeal to fans of Zhang’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers – another involves cascading rainbow light during a short-lived battle in a pagoda. But for the most part, the elegant, swirling combat of Zhang’s better-known films in the UK to date is replaced by soupy computer graphics and berserk editing.

The screenplay, credited to six writers including Max Brooks, Tony Gilroy and Edward Zwick, is more hole than plot, and sounds like an 1980s action-figure cartoon. Lame comic asides touch down with a plop, while the repartee between Jing and Damon’s characters seems to chill the very air around them. (The two actors have a strange and terrible kind of anti-chemistry.) When Willem Dafoe’s hollow-cheeked cleric emerges from behind a parapet, it looks as if some fun might finally be in store, but he turns out to be nothing more than the motor for a half-formed escape subplot which feels like leftovers from an earlier script. From blundered opening to risible conclusion, it’s a wall-to-wall fiasco.

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