“The Great Wall” is an epic adventure, set in China in the Song Dynasty, that tells the story of two Western mercenaries, William from England and Tovar from Spain, who want to get rich by bringing “black powder” weapons back to Europe but find themselves entangled in the defense of the Great Wall of China against a horde of monsters.
The mercenaries work with the Chinese armies to survive, winning respect for their fighting skills but not for their ethics. Over the course of the movie the values of the Westerners shift to move closer to the concepts of courage, duty, self-sacrifice, mutual-dependence and endurance of the Chinese warriors.
“The Great Wall” is much more like a “Star Wars” movie than it is a period drama. It’s packed with heros who stand, hopelessly out-numbered, against monstrous foes so that they can protect others. Think of William (Matt Damon) as a kind of Hans Solo, concerned with making a profit for himself and his partner, who comes to understand what it means to be part of something bigger and to fight for a cause. Replace the Jedi with “The Unseen Order” made up of five armies who live their lives on The Great Wall, training to hold back the hordes of monsters who hit them every sixty years and you’re there,
Except you’re not really. What makes “The Great Wall” stand out is that it adds a Chinese view to this well-worn Western story. Unlike the Jedi”The Unseen Order” gets its strength from working together in a disciplined way, rather than being a loose affiliation of talented warriors. Almost every scene speaks of putting duty before self-interest and of being part of a larger, purposeful, whole.
“The Great Wall” deserves to be seen on a huge screen and a great sound system. It is visually stunning: with vast numbers of soldiers in most scenes; the brightly coloured armour of the soldiers, red for the Eagle Army, Blue for the Crane Army, Yellow for the Tiger Army, purple for the Deer Army and black for the Bear army; the intricate design of The Wall; lighting that builds atmosphere, and monsters that are genuinely disturbing.
If you’ve seen other Zhang Yimou movies, like “Hero” or “House Of Flying Daggers” then you want be surprised that “The Great Wall” is a rich visual experience. The biggest differences are that this one is shot in China in English (mostly) and with a big budget ($135m).
Watching “The Great Wall” is a fun way to spend an afternoon, as long as you let go of any expectation of historical accuracy, which shouldn’t be hard in a monster-flick. Give yourself up to it and it will make you laugh and cheer and feel the thrill of watching other being brave.