Like its horde of monster villains that only awaken to attack China every 60 years, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall is slow to come to life. The opening scenes, in which a band of pan-European mercenaries led by Irishman William (Matt Damon) and Spaniard Tovar (Pedro Pascal) ride through the Northern Chinese countryside, evading capture and seeking to steal the secret of gunpowder in order to sell it back home, are plodding and hokey, with dialogue marked by exchanges that were clearly reverse engineered from the quips (“I’ve been left for dead twice. It was bad luck.” “For who?” “The people who left me.”) Once William and Tovar arrive at the Wall itself, though, some color and life begin to flow into the movie. This trend will continue; any scene that features no Chinese characters (Willem Dafoe also appears) is comparatively dull and drab. Perhap Zhang is tugging back at the problematic “white savior” conventions of the screenplay by reminding us that the only reason the Europeans (or the audience) are present is because of the Chinese setting and characters. Still, the first major battle sequence is the movie’s least thrilling, consisting largely of noisy effects shots alternating with shots of people reacting to them, like a chintzy episode of Charmed. But it’s in these same scenes that we are introduced to the “Nameless Order,” The Great Wall’s fictitious military legion tasked with repelling the army of beasts. The more time we get to spend with them, their innovative battle tactics and their byzantine hierarchy, the more the movie starts to have fun, kicking off a snowball effect in which each set-piece outdoes the last, building to an implausibly rollicking finale.
William and Tovar, after proving themselves in battle against the monsters, known as the tao tei, learn that these attacks have been happening every 60 years for a millennium and a half, leading to the construction of the wall itself. They are welcomed as allies but, when Dafoe’s Ballard, another European prisoner/compatriot, tells them the black powder they seek is in great supply in the wall’s storerooms, they must choose between stealing it and absconding or staying to aide their new friends, led by Jing Tian’s Commander Lin and including a seasoned General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), an English-speaking military strategist (Andy Lau) and a shy rookie (Lu Han) among many others. There’s not much else to the story than that but the narrative broad strokes, in Zhang’s assured directorial hands, convey not laziness but the simple grandeur of folklore.
Grandeur comes easy to Zhang. He may have made his name with intimate, socially conscious historical dramas like Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and To Live but starting with 2002’s Hero, he’s developed a knack for extravagance and spectacle. The Nameless Order, with each division distinguished by its own shade of bright, videogame-colored armor, moves in unison with the choreography and pageantry Zhang exhibited in directing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, complete with a massive drum corps. For all his flourishes, though, Zhang’s reach never exceeds his grasp. Even as tens of thousands of stampeding green lizard things with gaping, razor-toothed maws swarm through the frame, he never loses sight of his characters’ simple journeys.
Of course, it’s not as if there are a ton of balls to keep in the air. Most of the characters are archetypes, defined by a single trait – bravery, swagger, dishonesty, cowardice. Some of this familiarity is helpful when it comes to remembering who is who in the rather large cast. Generally, though, it’s just foundational. It’s easier to accept the outlandishness of the plot when we have, for instance, the recognizable buddy comedy duo at the center with William and Tovar bickering and cracking wise like a medieval Hope and Crosby. William and Commander Lin, as the true leads, are the only two that have anything approaching an arc. Damon is sturdy as the lifelong opportunist discovering his honor but Jing is the standout as the competent leader nevertheless forced into command at a younger age than she or anyone else expected. Mercifully, while there are hints of affection, the film resists forcing these two into a romance.
The Great Wall is similarly superficial in its political themes. Ultimately, despite its rigid levels of command, the Nameless Order represents a sort of military proletariat, the common masses fighting for one another and for their homeland and not specifically for the Emperor (Wang Junkai), a egotistic, sniveling boy more interested in his own preservation than that of his subjects. When Lin asks William what his country is like, he compares it to the struggle against the tao tei by saying “The strong take what they want.” It’s not exactly communist propaganda but the movie makes it clear that a nation’s strength comes from its citizens working together.
Zhang’s lavish exuberance is not likely to result in The Great Wall becoming a new classic, like Hero arguable has. But what he has fashioned here, though less original, is arguably more charmingly idiosyncratic and almost certainly more fun. This is a Ray Harryhausen-inspired, Saturday matinee adventure flick of the sort that we rarely see anymore. It can be serious without being dour and it can be spirited without being ironic. That may make it occasionally corny but it’s the kind of corny that’s been sparking imaginations and childhood daydreams since before anyone can remember.