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Jing Tian (left) and Matt Damon (second left) star in The Great Wall, a film that creates an effective, if simple, thematic scheme in which the virtues of the East and the West must be united to battle the beast. (Jasin Boland)
Jing Tian (left) and Matt Damon (second left) star in The Great Wall, a film that creates an effective, if simple, thematic scheme in which the virtues of the East and the West must be united to battle the beast. (Jasin Boland)

The Great Wall is bogged down by flat characters, hasty story Add to ...

  • Directed by Zhang Yimou
  • Written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz
  • Starring Matt Damon and Jing Tian
  • Classification 14A
  • Language English

The movie poster says the Great Wall of China is 5,500 miles long and took 1,700 years to build, before asking provocatively “What were they trying to keep out?” The answer, of course, is foreigners.

Even today, there are strict government quotas on the number of foreign films that can be screened in China. Committed to expanding global markets in an era of shrinking audiences, Hollywood needs those spots and is increasingly willing to cater to Chinese tastes to secure them: You may have noticed the pair of martial-arts characters inserted into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, for example. Or maybe not. They weren’t particularly well-defined.

Another approach to penetrating the Asian market is the Chinese-U.S. co-production, which isn’t subject to the quota: With a budget reported at $150-million (U.S.), The Great Wall is now the biggest example ever. So this time, the formula is reversed and it’s Matt Damon who is offered as a sop to Western tastes. He plays a European mercenary single-handedly fighting off gruesome monsters with a bow and arrow, while discovering the superiority of Chinese technology and esprit de corps in a film that offers a satisfying mythological framework for Sino-American relations.

The concept for the film actually has a certain literary flair. The script, by a team of six Hollywood writers including Tony Gilroy of the Bourne franchise, borrows a legendary beast from Jorge Luis Borges: In his Book of Imaginary Beings, the Argentine writer imagined the zoomorphic taotie figures on Chinese bronzes as two-headed monsters animated by greed. And under the direction of the Chinese master Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern), the visuals are often spectacular, with delightful visions of medieval weaponry and sweeping views of the Chinese landscape sliced in two by that snaking wall. It’s the flat characters and cursory storytelling that let the project down.

But first of all, you can banish all your anti-imperialist anxiety that Damon was going to be playing the mighty whitey rushing off to rescue the benighted Chinese. Instead, the film creates an effective, if simple, thematic scheme in which the virtues of the East and the West must be united to battle the beast. Western individualism is represented by Damon’s maverick William adventuring to China with his Spanish sidekick, Tovar (Pedro Pascal), in search of black powder, the legendary weapon that might make them both rich.

Chinese collectivism, meanwhile, is mainly expressed by huge crowds of impressively choreographed soldiers, including a female troupe of aerial warriors led by the beautiful commander Lin (Jing Tian). Launched into fearless flight by means of ropes and winches, they leap from the ramparts as if they’re avenging angels, ready to fight the taotie with only their spears.

But the army that holds the wall against these mysterious hordes keeps its greatest weapon in reserve: The black powder can let off fireballs the like of which the benighted Europeans have never seen. What damage might this formidable weapon wreak on civilization if the outside world were to discover it? Forget what you have seen, Lin urges William before they inevitably begin flinging explosives around.

And the beasts themselves? Digitally conjured, they are nasty things that look as if they’re a cross between a crocodile and a hyena. No big spoiler there: They appear early in the action in a movie that often flattens suspense by moving too quickly through its story. What the voracious taotie symbolize is a more intriguing question. Perhaps the fear of the other, rather than just the conquering foreigners themselves, or perhaps the nuclear threat, a.k.a. the black powder.

Trouble is, the cross-cultural theme hovers above action that has to be driven by barely developed characters: Damon’s William has a certain rough charm – and enjoys a modicum of light-hearted banter with Tovar – but his conversion to the communal good occurs too easily for the actor to instill any tension in it, while Jing’s perpetually efficient Commander Lin remains wooden throughout.

Indeed, most of the Chinese characters are notably competent and admirable – and so two-dimensional it can become hard to distinguish one from another. Meanwhile, Western audiences may be surprised by the movie’s painful modesty, as Zhang declines to light the romantic spark between William and Lin. There are occasional glimpses of murkier waters – there is an intriguing subplot starring an underused Willem Dafoe as another adventurer looking for the black powder – but they are left largely uncharted as the film returns repeatedly to the wall and the taotie.

Eventually, the horrible critters make it to the capital and a gorgeous palace along the lines of the Forbidden City, chased all the way by Lin’s troops in impressive but frantically flammable hot-air balloons. Zhang’s apocalyptic view of the beasts from above as they swarm over the palace like rats may be a chilling metaphor for what awaits us all if we don’t achieve effective international co-operation – but it is also the too-hasty climax to an underdeveloped martial-arts/monster-movie mashup. East and West are going to have to do better than this.

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