In The Great Wall, Matt Damon is essentially Jason Bourne with a Jon Snow do: a killer for hire of few words, but with plenty of heart.
Instead, he stumbles across something green and nasty.
Harried into a corner by marauding desert pirates and something that nearly bumped them off in the night, he and his last surviving brother in arms Tovar (Pascal, of Narcos fame) encounter the famous Great Wall of China and the elite band of warriors guarding it. But against what?
They soon come to realise just how close their escape the previous night was when a horde of reptilian monsters lay siege. William’s slick expertise with a bow and arrow wins him the admiration of his Chinese captors who, though they defend their positions with a beguiling mixture of precision and artistry, are mere fodder in the face of the enemy advance. In the end, it will take an epic final stand, and William choosing the cause over the cash, for humanity to see a new day.
These creatures are a strange bunch. Clearly stronger than their human counterparts, they also buck the trend of supernatural monsters by displaying a semblance of teamwork, rescuing their dead like American marines: no monster should be left behind, apparently. But they do have their weaknesses. They have eyes on their shoulders, a blinking sweet spot for William’s deadly arrows. And they have no defence against magnets, which interfere with their communication channels and make them sleepy.
It’s a bizarre Achilles’ heel for a horde that should, for all intents and purposes, be wiping the floor with whoever stands in their way and, legend or not, the story suffers for it.
The monsters, called Taotie, are supposed to be a metaphor for greed, a chilling illustration perhaps of what might happen to the world if William and his Westerners get their hands on the gunpowder. That said, considering the might of the evil they are facing, just why the Chinese are so reluctant to use the gunpowder in battle is anyone’s guess. As is the reason why the Taotie only return every 60 years.
Still, with a plot as flimsy as a paper lantern, these question marks don’t really detract from what is essentially an excuse for large-scale action sequences. Director Zhang Yimou, who operated on such an inviting colour palette in films like The House of Flying Daggers and Hero, plies his trademark with the same verve here, spotlighting even the most brutal scenes with hints of vibrant beauty. His Great Wall is a spectacle: for all the hype about it being an historic collaboration between the American and Chinese film industries, it is at heart a popcorn movie, designed to keep you at the edge of your seat.
In this pursuit, he succeeds.