Jing Tian, Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal star in The Great Wall

While, at its core, it may be a big, dumb mess of a medieval-monster-action-epic, The Great Wall (Cert 12A, 103 mins) is a thing of regimented bombast and beauty: a first step into the realm of the senseless blockbuster for a master of Chinese filmmaking.
Zhang Yimou’s first English language film may seem a far cry from the artful “wuxia” films for which the director is most famous – blockbusters in their own right.
However, thematically, The Great Wall has a lot in common with 2002’s Hero, harbouring a rather blatant nationalist subtext beneath its daft monster-movie premise.
Matt Damon plays William, an Irish mercenary who shares a “common goal” with Spanish adventurer Tovar (Pedro Pascal) – “black powder”.
Making their way to China to steal the explosive secret, the pair find themselves caught up in a war between the Chinese military and a horrible alien army with big scary claws and row upon row of pointy teeth.
The Great Wall, it’s revealed, was built to keep these mysterious creatures away from the nation’s capital.
Upon discovering their formidable fighting skills, commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and chief strategist Wang (Andy Lau) seek the foreigners’ help in defending the garrison.
Yimou’s painterly command of colour is obvious from The Great Wall’s opening segments – vast red-green expanses of Manchurian wild land delight the eye and the director’s militarised use of colour, as sumptuous here as in Hero, evokes Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.
Each army regiment is clad in different coloured armour and, accordingly, the battle sequences yield vibrant displays of purple, yellows blue and red.
The action is wonderfully choreographed and packed with graceful acrobatics and brutal violence alike.
The honour here is in fighting for one’s nation – not for individual glory or greed. Every soldier is ready and willing for glorious sacrifice under a common flag.
At its heart, The Great Wall is an ode to Chinese military might – consequently, there’s a souring sense of nationalism running throughout.
While the action is wildly entertaining, it seems that rigorous training and fight choreography took precedent over Damon’s voice coaching – this will go down as one of the most feeble attempts at an Irish accent in the history of modern cinema.
Indeed, the acting here is stiff and rarely believable. There’s very little going on character-wise other than a tenuous subplot about redemption.
William begins proceedings as a “thief and a liar” and, with little or no prodding, performs a complete moral 180.
While he fails to ring believable performances from his key cast members, Yimou again proves himself a master of action and visual composition.
The Great Wall is packed with sumptuous visuals, as much a parade of beauty and bombast in its quieter moments as in its huge, heaving battle sequences.
The film’s strictly regimented approach to colour explodes into wonderful chaos for the final showdown in a stained-glass tower.
While the story may be fraught with nonsense-logic and is lacking in any sort of compelling characterisation, The Great Wall ultimately entertains as a sumptuous-but-silly visual treat.
Verdict: 6/10

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